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Conference Keys to Restore Voter Confidence Start with Campaign Finance Reform

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 07/23/2015 - 1:00am

Ann Ravel, Jared DeMarinis & Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, from left (photo: @NYCCFB)

Ninety-six percent of Americans are concerned by the role of money in politics. Ninety-one percent think there's nothing they can do to change it.

Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel presented these statistics during her keynote address at a conference - "American Elections at the Crossroads: How do we restore voters' faith in elections and get them back to the polls?" - focused on changing that cynical sentiment, held by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Committee for Economic Development on Wednesday.

Ravel, joined by elected officials, campaign finance experts, and academics, considered the effects of money in politics - particularly the role public campaign finance programs can play in spurring voter participation and leveling the influence playing field.

In her remarks, Ravel warned that the influence of money in politics is causing people to disassociate with electoral and government processes. "The influence of money in politics is contributing to this low level of political trust," she said. But, she added that the problem is not the amount of money, "the issue is where the money comes from."

John Mollenkopf, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the director of its Center for Urban Research began by noting the role of political contributions in spurring people to vote.

"The positive takeaway to begin with is people who contribute are more likely to vote. So clearly the act of contributing is an extension of political engagement, it's something people do on top of bothering to go to the polls and public match really incentivizes people to contribute," Mollenkopf said, referring to New York City's small donor matching program. The Campaign Finance Board matches contributions of up to $175 at a six-to-one ratio for candidates for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council.

Former U.S. Congressmember Tom Petri of Wisconsin agreed, describing political contributions as a way for people to feel they have a stake in elections, compelling interest particularly in local elections.

"I think sometimes we get too focused on big money in the big elections which are very important, but we should also remember the political process is a huge broad diverse one," Petri said, indicating that their are many municipal level contests that people often forget when focusing on presidential and congressional races.

For New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, campaign contributions from voters are as symbolically important as they are practically.

"When ordinary New Yorkers put their hard earned money into a campaign, they are putting faith in candidates," James said. Citing her modest personal means, the public advocate often points to the necessity of the public matching system in allowing her to compete electorally.

To combat the problem of low voter turnout in municipal and state-wide elections, Mollenkopf emphasized the role of political parties as agents of voter mobilization and suggested a solution that may be unsavory to many in City Hall.

"As strange as it may seem for a person like me who is a long-time Democrat, I think we need a stronger Republican Party in New York City," Mollenkopf said. "We need a party that will go out and contest these elections with candidates who will give the Democrat incumbents who often have no challenge, give them a run for their money, get everybody really involved."

City Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, agreed with the importance of a two-party system, but "as much as I'd love to see a stronger Republican party, I'm not going to hold my breath anytime soon," he joked.

Ulrich attributed low voter turnout to a cumbersome voting and voter registration process.

"A lot of people don't vote because they're not registered and they're not registered because we don't make it easy for people to vote," Ulrich said, adding he hopes to see an app developed that could register voters. "Imagine how many 18-year-olds we could register in the classroom in seconds; teachers could encourage students to whip out their smartphones and register."

Additionally, voters should be able to vote at any poll site in New York— not just their district's designating polling site— and should be able to vote early, Ulrich argued.

"One of the reasons voting turnout is so low is that we tell people you can only vote from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on a Tuesday," Ulrich said. "And if you can't make it, you can't be a part of the process."

Panelists also discussed localities which have successfully implemented public financing laws, as well as efforts across the country to pass laws encouraging small donations to candidates. In New York, proponents of the New York City system often call for a similar state program whereby campaign donations are more tightly limited and public matching dollars are available for small contributions.

"Money will always be in politics," acknowledged Jared DeMarinis, director of Maryland's State Board of Elections. In Maryland, Montgomery County's campaign finance program, the first in the country passed after Citizens United v. FEC - the Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations - was designed keeping in mind the altered political environment. "Let's not have the hard caps on expenditures," they decided. "Let's just cap how much public monies we'll give to candidates but allow them to keep raising beyond that but just restrict on how the money is raised." Montgomery's program was "basically modelled after the New York City idea," said DeMarinis.

Other parts of the country may be passing campaign finance laws, but not all have been as successful as New York City, according to Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute. He compared the small donor public matching programs in New York City and Los Angeles and found that "not all matching funds have the same effect." A study he conducted with Michael Parrott found the New York program to be significantly more effective than the one in Los Angeles due to differences in how they are structured, including around what percentage matching funds account for spending limits. "You need a program that will actually work, that will do its job well," he said.

One area in which he found success in both cities was that supporting small donations encouraged political participation among less wealthy and non-white racial and ethnic groups. "In both cities, small donors come from much more diverse neighborhoods than large donors," he said. His study found that New York City Council candidates raised campaign contributions from 90 percent of the city's census block groups. In Los Angeles, the percentage was lower, but still significant at 68 percent.

Currently, efforts are underway to create or strengthen campaign finance laws in several cities and states across the country, including Chicago, Santa Fe, Seattle and Maine, panelists said.

"We have seen an enormous interest in cities and states across the country. And in many places over the next two or three years, we are going to see dozens of jurisdictions looking to move small donor public financing," said Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president for strategy and programs at Common Cause. "It's about people wanting to reclaim their government."

"Our hope is that Chicago will mimic what's happening in New York, in Los Angeles, and other places," said Mike Petro, vice president of Committee for Economic Development. "Those are the victories that we need across the country."

***
by Catie Edmondson and Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo Waves Left with Executive Actions, Is Met with Shrugs

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 07/23/2015 - 1:00am

Cuomo at Wednesday's rally (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

On Wednesday, the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo streamed live video of the wage board he convened as its members recommended a multi-year plan to phase in a $15 per hour minimum wage for fast food workers across the state. As the meeting ended the same stream cut to a jubilant rally in New York City. In stark contrast to previous Cuomo administration efforts there was no pretense that the wage board was somehow separate from the governor.

The Cuomo administration attempted to propagate the appearance of independence for previous executive entities such as the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, two tax commissions, and even the Department of Environmental Conservation when it made its decision to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the state. But this time such a separation wasn't useful to the governor.

With his poll numbers at an all-time-low, members of his own party in open revolt and facing an ongoing feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo appears to be looking to bolster his standing among Democrats across the state by taking executive action on issues he failed to deliver on during the legislative session. Many prominent Democratic electeds and activists have questioned whether Cuomo actually expended any political capital during the legislative session to move progressive issues such as criminal justice reform, the DREAM Act, or a minimum wage increase.

"I don't believe the Assembly had a real working partner in the governor or the Senate in terms of getting things done for the people of this city and, in many cases, the people of this state," Mayor Bill de Blasio told NY1 late last month.

Trust among Democrats was further eroded when Senate Republicans released a memorandum of understanding with Cuomo's office that appeared to state that the governor agreed not to phase in a part of the SAFE Act until Republicans agree to it. Other than that MOU, Cuomo's post-session agenda has been dedicated to taking executive action on issues favored by the left and on which he did not deliver through legislation.

Cuomo has promised to use executive action to remove 16- and 17-year-olds from the state's prison system after failing to enact a sweeping policy to prevent those teens from being tried as adults, much less locked up with them. Failing to reach a deal with the legislature on other criminal justice reforms in the wake of death of Eric Garner, Cuomo signed an executive order earlier this month giving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to investigate police killings of unarmed individuals, an attempt to reduce the perception that local district attorneys are biased toward the police.

Cuomo was celebrated by Democrats when signing the special prosecutor executive order, and he was applauded at Wednesday's minimum wage rally. City Comptroller Scott Stringer heaped praise on the governor as a man of action when he spoke to those gathered. But, many of Cuomo's fellow Democratic electeds and progressive advocates were not so committed to attaching the governor's name to the wage board decision. Three of the state's most powerful Democratic electeds - Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie - all released statements praising the decision, but without any mention of the governor.

Celebratory statements from New York Communities for Change and the Working Families Party also failed to mention the governor by name.

"I think that's appropriate," said former Cuomo opponent Zephyr Teachout of the lack of support from other Democratic electeds. Teachout is the Fordham Law professor who embarrassed Cuomo with a stronger-than-expected showing during last year's Democratic primary. Teachout tapped into displeasure with the governor from his left.

Cuomo defended his use of executive actions during a Wednesday appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio program, and chose to eliminate any perception that he was separate from the wage board.

"I am the executive, I have many powers beyond those which the Legislature passes, right?" Cuomo told host Susan Arbetter rhetorically. "The executive, whether it's the president, the mayor, or the governor, you run the government, and you have a whole host of powers that are apart and aside from the Legislature. I often say to people [that] dealing with the Legislature and getting a budget passed, and then new laws, that's a part of my job. But that's only a part. And by the way, I don't even think that's the majority of my job. I run the government."

Teachout doesn't think Cuomo's problem lies exclusively with Democrats. "The governor has broad temperamental issues," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. "It's not like Cuomo has a problem with [only] the left. You are going to have a problem finding any group of voters who believe the governor is actually committed to fighting for them."

Cuomo has branded himself as a doer, as an executive who is about making sure the government is running efficiently and effectively, and who can get deals made by working with members of both parties.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that Cuomo's use of executive action is fairly typical for governors who have served more than one term. "In terms of putting it into context, governors have historically faced challenges in their second terms. Second terms tend to be harder. [Republican Governor George] Pataki had serious trouble in his second term. It wasn't just with Democrats, but with his own party challenging him."

Horner said that Cuomo is also dealing with "eroded approval ratings and unprecedented indictments" of state legislative leaders that have made getting what he wants from the Legislature that more difficult. And Horner said Cuomo is particularly notorious for "liking to put points on the board."

Many Democrats are happy Cuomo has used his executive powers on the issues he has but feel he acted out of political expediency so that he didn't have to place his Senate Republican allies in a difficult position during the legislative session. These Democrats are therefore reluctant to give him credit.

On the other hand, many business groups and Republican electeds are more than happy to connect Cuomo to his left-leaning executive actions, because they are opposed to them. "From day one Governor Cuomo's wage board has sought to silence the business community and force through an unfair and discriminatory increase on a single sector of one industry," said Melissa Fleischut, President and CEO of the NYS Restaurant Association, in a statement. Fleischut went on to accuse Cuomo of "stacking the board" with supporters of a wage increase, and allowing business owners "to get booed and heckled at public hearings."

Other business groups have attacked Cuomo for bypassing the Legislature on the wage issue, saying he has too much executive power. It may be surprising, but Teachout agrees to some extent. "The governor of New York has too much executive power and the 'three men in a room' have too much power," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. "Having said that, I'm happy he's using it for positive ends. But you know with this governor that if he has to move, he is always going to act in a way that maximizes his own power."

Cuomo is likely to face a lawsuit from the restaurant industry over the wage board's recommendations and subsequent adoption by the Department of Labor.

Regardless of his executive actions, pundits say Cuomo has to do something about his sinking poll numbers in New York City, which has been a reliable base for Cuomo in past elections. A June 15 Siena College poll found Cuomo's favorability rating drop to 39 percent, with his numbers dipping among city-based voters.

Horner said that executive actions are simply part of Cuomo's efforts to enact his agenda and that part of his agenda has to be "keeping the coalition together."

Teachout thinks Cuomo's executive actions indicate that he knows he faces an increasingly hostile electorate. "He is losing that default New York City vote that he could count on last time, and that's a big, big deal. When all you have left is the Buffalo base, that's a real problem. I don't think the wage board does much to help that."

Teachout - who has not ruled out challenging Cuomo again in 2018 (assuming he seeks a third term) - said that she believes voters have developed a view of Cuomo similar to the one that de Blasio expressed: a transactional politician, cynical, power-obsessed, and untrustworthy; and not much is going to change that.

A key question is how much workers, activists, and elected officials associate Cuomo with the action he is taking. Will the special prosecutor move endear Cuomo in communities distrustful of the police and district attorney offices? Will his move on the minimum wage earn him the loyalty of those low-wage and union workers? Are the progressive activists who have been burned by Cuomo willing to live with a governor who they don't feel they can trust but sometimes delivers for their causes?

"I compare this moment to the fracking moment," said Teachout. "I think the administration thought the fracking ban would have an equal impact to the marriage equality moment--that it would be this inspirational moment for people to rally around the governor. But I think most people saw it the same way I did: 'Great! He banned fracking.' But with no change in how they see him."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

Inside the Campaign Finance Filings of NYC's 'Big Four'

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 07/23/2015 - 1:00am

The city's 'big four' (photo: @NYCCouncil)

Mid-way through 2015, the latest campaign finance filings are in and the raise and spend activity of New York City's top four elected officials can be analyzed through their principal campaign committees. Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, all Democrats, maintain active committees during their current terms in office.

While it is presumed that de Blasio, James, and Stringer will each seek re-election to city-wide office, Mark-Viverito is term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017 and her future plans are unclear. It is well-documented that Mark-Viverito continues to raise money, readying, perhaps, for a mayoral run somewhere down the line. Both James and Stringer continue to raise funds too, with the comptroller outpacing his colleagues.

Mayor de Blasio has not been fundraising for his re-election campaign, though the account shows quite a bit of spending - instead it appears that the mayor is directing donations toward either the non-profit that he is closely aligned with, Campaign for One New York, and the city's Mayor's Fund for New York City.

All four candidates are subject to New York City Campaign Finance Board rules when it comes to their official campaign accounts. Information about the CFB program and its rules may be found on the CFB website, but one key concept is the contribution limit - a specific donor (individual or institution) may commit to a single politician. Though the limit varies per office, for all four of these officials, that effective limit is $4,950 per donor. When a donor has given this amount, they have "maxed out."

All of the data and charts below include the accumulated filings of July, 2015, for activity from January 1, 2014 through the July filing cut-off date of July 15, 2015. De Blasio has raised no money into his principal campaign account during his time as mayor, and he spends from a "war chest." The other three officials - James, Stringer, and Mark-Viverito - have sought out funds during this term. Popularly elected to citywide positions and assumed mayoral aspirants, Public Advocate James and Comptroller Stringer are both raising money at a significant pace, though Stringer has raised more thus far:

While James and Stringer appear to push their own fundraising performance around the January and July filings, Mark-Viverito had her big month in April (it was reported that she held a birthday fundraiser on April 20):

In terms of where the money comes from, James has enjoyed city-wide political financial support since January 2014, but has relatively few links to the Bronx:

Stringer is heavily reliant on the Upper East Side and his home-turf in the Upper West Side since January 2014:

Mark-Viverito's fundraising is Manhattan-centric; though less than $5,000 is from her district - which spans parts of Manhattan and the Bronx - since January 2014:

For each of the three (James, Stringer, Mark-Viverito), the share comprised by "maxed-out donors" (everyone who gave $4,950) as part of overall fundraising shows differences in those largest donors. Stringer's fundraising outpaces both of his colleagues by quite a bit, and the portion of his haul made up of max donors is largest. Stringer has about 50% of his raise from max contributors, whereas James is at about 35%, and Mark-Viverito about 20%.

In raw numbers, the maxed-out donors to each of the three - sums and headcount for each segment are shown:

All three officials count a common basket of labor institutions in their max-out club. All three also are in receipt of $4,950 from Greenberg Traurig, LLP as well.

A few individual donors have maxed out for two of these officials:

  • Kate Engelbrecht for James and Stringer
  • Alexander Rovt for James and Stringer
  • Roger Sherman for Stringer and Mark-Viverito
  • William Zeckendorf for James and Stringer

Campaign finance filings also require disclosure of spending. While the mayor is reticent to raise to his campaign account, he has spent from it. Stringer and James are both spending as well.

Mark-Viverito's biggest expenditure is on legal services, likely due to combatting allegations regarding her use of a consultancy during the speaker's race.

The top expenditures for each campaign - every relationship worth $1,000 or more entered into by these campaigns since January 2014 and through the July 2015 filing - show the bulk of expenditure is directed towards one or two firms that provide consulting and/or legal advice.

De Blasio has Hilltop Public Solutions and Genova Burns; James has Bedford Grove and Mirram Group; Stringer has Tucker Green Consulting and Genova Burns; while Mark-Viverito has Pitta Bishop Del Giorno Giblin and Nashban Mansur LLC. Mark-Viverito's very large payments to Ballard Spahr, meanwhile, are said to be related to the ongoing Conflicts of Interest Board investigation into her speaker's race.

Beneath that, the campaigns pay a small handful of staffers, handle some housekeeping, and some have funded their fund-raising operations to varying degrees. De Blasio's campaign is making substantial payroll payments, including various forms of insurance and taxes as well. In the "count" column we are displaying how many checks each vendor is receiving from its respective campaign, and the "average" column simply performs the division to provide a general sense of the ongoing relationships at play.

***
by Jon Reznick for Gotham Gazette
Data analysis performed using FTMSQL2 by Competitive Advantage Research, LLC

Note: The author has provided paid photo, prior to their current terms, to Stringer and Mark-Viverito, and in-kind photo to James.

Categories: State/Local

City Industrial Manufacturing Plan Still Needed

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 07/23/2015 - 1:00am

Rally outside City Hall before a land use committee hearing

Since the recent announcement by Jamestown Properties and partners of a $1 billion investment to rebrand and renovate a massive 16-building complex - which will require a rezoning to permit a hotel and academic facility as well as a public investment of $100 million to improve the surrounding streetscape and infrastructure - there has been a steady stream of media accounts of new tech and commercial tenants drawn to Industry City.

While the successful marketing of an “innovation district” has generated much interest and activity, the city has yet to state its policy on industrial land uses contributing to the real estate uncertainty that is threatening Sunset Park’s industrial small businesses including those in the Industrial Business Zone. Heightening real estate speculation is exemplified by the impending acquisition of the 14-acre, M3-1 zoned Sunset Industrial Park by a real estate investment joint venture, which “immediately after closing on the Property, Savoy/601W will begin the design and approval process to rezone this site and to redevelop it into a large-scale residential community“ thereby increasing the site’s value by more than four or five times the acquisition price of $130 million.

A month ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sunset Park’s elected officials including City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, Congress Member Nydia Velazquez, State Assembly Member Felix Ortiz, and long-time maritime advocate Congress Member Jerrod Nadler joined federal officials on the Sunset Park waterfront to announce the reactivation of the 72-acre South Brooklyn Marine Terminal (SBMT) and its designation as part of America’s Marine Highway System. All speakers lauded reactivating Brooklyn’s working waterfront, the environmental and public health benefits of truck traffic reduction, and the creation of unionized jobs. 

When the Mayor was asked to comment on neighboring Industry City’s prior request to use five acres of SBMT for 750 parking spaces to accommodate new tenants and shoppers, he affirmed SBMT would only be used for industrial purposes. While the parking issue appears to have been resolved for the immediate future, a substantive public discussion about the co-existence of an innovation economy district and a traditional maritime-manufacturing hub remain outstanding.

Jamestown Properties specializes in the adaptive reuse of industrial buildings. Its Innovation and Design Building in Boston’s Innovation District is similar to its plans for Industry City. Boston Globe columnist Paul McMorrow in “Old vs. new Seaport needs public debate” argued that for traditional and modern manufacturing sectors to work together, “it will only be after serious coordination, and hard conversations about what industry means in the 21st century.” Although the New York City Council released a comprehensive study of industrial land uses in November 2014, which was followed by a Land Use Committee public hearing in April 2015, Mayor de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen have yet to weigh in on a substantive public conversation about industrial manufacturing and its importance to New York City’s economy.

The City Council report found that the decades-long decline of industrial manufacturing sectors has ended and, in fact, industrial employment grew modestly from 2010 to 2014.  Sunset Park is a prime example of this trend. Based on the New York State Department of Labor Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Sunset Park’s industrial firms increased slightly from 1,138 in 2010 to 1,193 in 2014. The number of employees also grew during this period from 10,651 to 11,614 workers.

Although maligned for creating few jobs, warehouses are an important part of an industrial ecosystem and in Sunset Park warehouses employed 103 workers at an average annual wage of $31,236. Representing a third (33%) of the local employment base, this data underscores how traditional industrial manufacturing sectors continue to anchor Sunset Park’s neighborhood economy. These are jobs that have historically and continue to provide opportunity for working class immigrants and workers of color.

In response to a question posed by a Protect Our Working Waterfront Alliance (POWWA) member, Industry City CEO Andrew Kimball discounted community concerns about gentrification and displacement because contrary to “pushing people out”, he claimed the innovation economy is about “bringing people in.” But the real issue may be who is being brought in.

UCLA geographer Allen Scott argues that innovation districts are enclaves that represent a “privileged foci of production, work, and social life.” A mundane illustration is the branding of Industry City’s Food Hall, which is not called a food court because the term conjures up a shopping mall – the quintessential symbol of mass consumption.  Affluent consumers desire a unique experience in “great gathering places,” according to developer/architect Young Woo, who is “curating” a mix of retail tenants in refurbished shipping containers on Manhattan’s Pier 57. Clearly, an innovation economy is not just a reference to a mode of production but connotes a cultural milieu and aesthetic deemed creative, hip, and artisanal.

On the day of the City Council Land Use Committee hearing, POWWA – a citywide alliance which includes UPROSE, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Teamsters Local 812, Trinity Lutheran Church, and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance – held a rally at City Hall where elected officials and advocates addressed the importance of preserving and protecting industrial jobs for working class New Yorkers. A Crain's article in March indicated that Mayor de Blasio was soon to announce his industrial manufacturing policy but that has yet to happen. In the meantime, the lack of an engaged public conversation about 21st century industry is contributing to speculative real estate activity and rising rents threatening Sunset Park’s viable industrial manufacturing ecosystem.

***
Tarry Hum is a professor at the City University of New York and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn's Sunset Park.

Categories: State/Local

Wind, hail, lightning and floods tear through Capital Region

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/22/2015 - 8:07am

Valatie

Kristine Booth has seen tornadoes before. So when the ominous dark clouds crept into her neighborhood in this Columbia County village Sunday evening, she wasn't expecting a twister to touch down.

Her expectations ultimately were correct, but the storms that rolled through the southern end of Rensselaer County, parts of Columbia County and much of the Capital Region packed a wallop of wind that felled trees and tossed debris across roadways.

"I wasn't honestly overly concerned about it," Booth said at a neighbor's house on Baldwin Lane — though she did express trepidations about venturing around the corner to her home, where she didn't know what destruction might greet her. "It was just the trees and the wind."

Meteorologists said there were reports of a funnel cloud near a supermarket in Ghent at 5:06 p.m. But it wasn't clear if a tornado actually touched down, and National Weather Service inspectors were planning to visit the area Monday in efforts to see if there was such a weather event.

Sunday's slew of storms, which slammed some communities and barely hit others in the region, led to brief road flooding, minor traffic jams, a suspected apartment fire, scattered hail and lots of downed trees.

Route 9J at Castleton was flooded and the route south was partially blocked by downed tree limbs and a tree. Traffic was also stopped or slowed to a crawl as torrents of rain flooded South Pearl Street in Albany's South End and sections of I-90.

Firefighters quickly put out a blaze that erupted in a Watervliet apartment building that may have been the result of a lightning hit.

A large tree crashed into a house along Maple Avenue in Selkirk, and in nearby Cedar Hill there were reports of golf ball-size hail.

The storms passed through the area on the Capital Region's hottest day so far this year — the temperature hit 91 degrees at Albany International Airport, National Weather Service meteorologist John Quinlan said.

It was the first time the temperature had been in the 90s this year. And the heat index, which factors in humidity to measure how hot it felt, was at 98 degrees.

The National Weather Service spotted the storms coming and they put out warnings for people in the path, such as those in Valatie, to get indoors and take cover. The tornado warning also was issued for east central Montgomery County, northeastern Schenectady County, southwestern Saratoga County and southeastern Fulton County.

Winds and downed trees led to several power outages. Approximately 625 homes in Delmar were without power for awhile, according to National Grid, and the area along the border between Rensselaer and Columbia counties had roughly 430 customers in the dark as well.

The ValleyCats baseball game scheduled for Sunday night in Troy was rescheduled for Monday morning.

Some areas, though, were relatively unscathed, at least according to early reports.

"There were really no unusual incidents," Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said, noting that other than heavy rain, the city appeared to have suffered no real damage.

In Valatie, Booth's neighbor, Justin Couch, estimated winds blew through the area at 80 miles per hour.

Next door at Kathy Reed's sunshine-yellow-painted home, gusts brought down a large tree limb on her roof.

"We were just watching TV and the house shook," she said.

Reed later added, "I've been on the outskirts of strong storms like that," and guessed that perhaps F1-force winds blew through the area.

Around the bend on Orchard Drive, the driving rains and heavy wind prompted Chelsea Faulkner to head into the basement of her home as tornado warnings were issued for the area. She said she heard a loud crash as the storm passed over. The pine tree that had fallen onto her property from next door provided a clue as to where the sound came from.

"It wasn't like a hurricane," she said. "It was a little bit scary so I went into the basement."

While storms in the region produced golf ball-size hail in some areas, the Valatie storm brought only the wind and rain, residents said.

As Faulkner described the storm, Troy DenBesten waltzed over from across the street with a chain saw in hand.

"Exciting stuff," he said before walking over to the tree laying in Faulkner's yard to cut it up into more manageable pieces.

Categories: State/Local

Developers tied to Albany scandals funded tax break push

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/22/2015 - 2:07am

Albany

In the wake of two high-profile political corruption cases allegedly involving major New York City real estate developers, some of those same developers helped fund a $1.9 million Albany lobbying effort this year for a lucrative tax break.

A lobbying disclosure filing provided Friday by the group Putting New Yorkers to Work, a nonprofit run by leadership of the real estate trade group the Real Estate Board of New York, reported the group taking in $200,000 in May from eight limited liability companies controlled by Glenwood Management. That's the Long Island luxury residential developer that played a supporting role in the federal corruption charges against ex-Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Silver stepped down from his legislative leadership post in January and Skelos in May.

Glenwood's donations to the lobbying group are listed as coming in on May 8 – four days after Skelos was arrested and charged. Such lobbying donor disclosures are required every six months for substantial lobbying spenders under state law.

Glenwood has long been the state's biggest political donor, including to its three statewide Democrats – Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli – but appears to have tamped down its campaign spending in light of the federal scrutiny. Last Wednesday, Cuomo reported no political donations from the company the past six months.

The company did, however, make the $200,000 lobbying contribution, which was part of nearly $1.9 million in total spending by Putting New Yorkers To Work in May and June.

Charles Dorego, a top Glenwood official, was given a non-prosecution agreement in conjunction with his assistance in the Skelos case. In both the Silver and Skelos cases, the lawmakers are accused of concocting schemes in which Glenwood would enrich them, or their families, in exchange for favorable treatment on one or several of the key issues Glenwood has before the Legislature, from rent regulation to tax breaks for developers.

A developer which had a cameo role in the complaint against Skelos, Tishman Speyer, also gave $250,000 to the lobbying effort, the disclosure shows. According to the complaint against Skelos, Skelos' son, Adam, who is also facing charges, sought title insurance work from the developer. Neither Glenwood Management nor Tishman Speyer has been charged with wrongdoing.

Putting New Yorkers to Work pushes for the interests of big real estate and affordable housing developers in the battle over the extension of the 421-a tax abatement, which expired in June and gives lucrative tax breaks to developers in exchange for their building affordable housing.

Of the $3.1 million in contributions collected by Putting New Yorkers to Work, the biggest donor was the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, a trade association for affordable housing developers that gave $500,000. Many of New York City's biggest developers gave, from the Durst Organization to The Related Companies.

The group was aligned with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made building affordable housing a priority for his administration, but was at odds with a group funded by buildings trades unions, UP4NYC, that itself engaged in a well-funded push for a new prevailing wage mandate for construction workers at 421-a projects.

Cuomo also supported the unions' prevailing wage push, and in an end-of-session agreement, REBNY and the building trades unions face a January deadline to hammer out a deal on the prevailing wage mandate. Otherwise, the tax abatement will expire. In a statement provided Friday, REBNY president John Banks remained critical of the wage mandate, which critics say will reduce affordable housing projects.

"Putting New Yorkers to Work was funded by some of the largest employers of unionized construction workers in New York City," Banks said. "Even they realized that imposing a prevailing wage requirement for construction work on 421-a projects will dramatically reduce the amount of affordable housing built in New York City, serve as a disincentive for the building trades unions to reform so unionized construction can compete more effectively with their non-union counterparts, and deprive City residents of access to good-paying jobs in the construction industry."

cbragg@timesunion.com518-454-5303

Categories: State/Local

Uber, mayor spat a real street fight

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/22/2015 - 2:07am

New York

A dispute is simmering between the ride-booking service Uber and Mayor Bill de Blaiso's City Hall, an increasingly pitched disagreement playing out on smartphones, over the airwaves and in the press over a fundamental question: Who controls access to the streets of the nation's largest city?

By the day, more and more Uber cars have taken to Manhattan's streets, summoned by smartphone apps to pick up passengers who enjoy their convenience and consent to pay additional surge pricing during peak hours.

The de Blasio administration is attempting to put the brakes on the robust expansion, saying that the flood of new cars could further ensnarl Manhattan's clogged streets and arguing that the Uber system isn't equitable for drivers and residents. Uber, however, accuses the mayor of being in the back pocket of the yellow taxi industry, attempting to stifle free enterprise and innovation while hurting the low-income neighborhoods that make up the core of his political support.

A pivotal moment in the feud could come as early as next week, as the City Council considers legislation that would put a cap on Uber's growth.

"We cannot afford to have unlimited, unregulated growth of Uber," said First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris. "We have real concerns about congestion.

"We are already seeing traffic speeds in Manhattan falling," said Shorris. "That is already having an impact on the city's economy, on air quality and potentially an impact on public safety. And at least one reason why that might be true is the enormous growth of Uber."

The company has spread across the globe and become wildly successful, worth an estimated $40 billion, while dispatching 25,000 cars on New York's streets, as opposed to 13,000 yellow taxis. It's also become a political flashpoint, as Republican presidential candidates hail it as a model of the free market while some Democrats — including de Blasio — have expressed reservations.

San Francisco-based Uber has howled at the de Blasio administration's attempts to slow its growth. Its leaders, including chief adviser David Plouffe, met with Shorris on Monday but, after the meeting failed to yield a resolution, the company sharpened its attacks.

The City Council plan, which has the administration's support, proposes limiting Uber's growth for a year while a study is conducting the impact the service has on the city's traffic. Uber, which opposes all limits to its growth, is against the measure.

A vote on the legislation in the City Council could happen as early as next week.

Categories: State/Local

Action saves $117M in aid for schools

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/22/2015 - 2:07am

Washington

Sen. Chuck Schumer on Thursday struck a compromise with other senators on a formula for federal education funding that he said would have cost New York millions of dollars for school districts like Albany that have large numbers of students from low-income families.

If approved, the amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act — which passed the Senate Thursday 81-17 — would have cut Title I funding to 560 upstate New York school districts by $117 million.

"Our teachers and students work too hard to have the rug pulled out from under them over summer vacation," Schumer said in a statement. "I am pleased that we were able to successfully beat back this proposal."

The Every Child Achieves Act focuses primarily on replacing the defunct No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 flagship legislation of President George W. Bush that ushered in a strict regimen of achievement tests that was long criticized as inflexible. The bill maintains testing but gives states power over what to do about low-achieving schools.

An amendment pushed by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., would have rewritten the formula for dispensing Title I money to favor smaller consumers of the funding at the expense of larger ones such as New York.

Title I, which dates back to 1965, was a cornerstone of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs.

It directs federal dollars to districts with large proportions of low-income students for remedial help in reading and other subjects, and counseling to help children get back on track. New York — especially New York City — has long depended on the funding to provide extra help for low-achieving students.

Under Schumer's compromise, the new formula would not apply to existing funds that states like New York already receive. And in addition, it wouldn't kick in until overall Title I funding reaches $17 billion. It is currently pegged at $14.5 billion.

Albany schools expect to receive $4.2 million in Title I money for the upcoming school year. Had the formula been rewritten, the district would have lost $2 million — "about half our funding," according to spokesman Ron Lesko.

Lesko said that about 70 percent of the 9,000-plus student population in Albany qualifies for federally subsidized free- or reduced-cost school meals — the usual measure of low-income student population.

Because the percentage is so high, he added, all students actually are entitled to free meals.

Title I money is spent in the district's elementary and middle schools but not Albany High School, he said.

" We have a higher percentage of students who are behind academically and need extra help to catch up," Lesko said. "That's what Title I is there for. Losing it would have had dire consequences for our students."

dan@hearstdc.com

Categories: State/Local

Prosecutors wrangle over power claimed by attorney general in civilian deaths by police

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/22/2015 - 2:07am

Albany

The war of words between state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the state's district attorneys over Schneiderman's new special prosecutor powers isn't over.

In a three-page letter sent Thursday, District Attorneys Association President Gerald Mollen wrote that the group had legal concerns about a directive Schneiderman sent Monday that outlined the role district attorneys would play in investigations of police killings of unarmed civilians. It essentially stated that district attorneys would be designated to perform the preliminary investigation in the immediate aftermath of such a death up until the time they are relieved by Schneiderman's team.

Mollen, Broome County's district attorney, said that plan created an "obvious logical inconsistency of superseding all 62 elected District Attorneys due to a perceived conflict of interest and loss of confidence, only to immediately designate them to perform crucial tasks at the most critical time in the investigation of one of these controversial incidents."

Mollen questioned not only Schneiderman's power to make such a designation, but also if doing so was an amendment to the executive order signed last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo giving the attorney general special prosecutorial and investigative powers for such cases.

The prosecutors believe Schneiderman's interpretation of the executive order is too broad.

Schneiderman's Communications Director Damien LaVera responded by saying the attorney general "is working in good faith to cooperate with the District Attorneys to ensure the Executive Order is implemented in a way that promotes justice by ensuring a thorough and impartial review of any cases that arise."

Mollen's letter followed one Schneiderman sent late Wednesday in an effort to soothe district attorneys' concerns while also jabbing at what the attorney general apparently sees as the group's effort to hold the debate in public. Schneiderman said the notion that district attorneys can't take any action under the executive order is without merit.

"(If) a District Attorney fails to take appropriate actions in the hours following an incident, it will not be because of any legal prohibition but because of a choice by the District Attorney not to take appropriate actions," he wrote.

The attorney general added that the group declined an invitation from Alvin Bragg, who is heading the new Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit, for a meeting to discuss legal issues.

"This seems to indicate that some members of the association do not, in fact, seek to obtain clarity on legal issues, but rather to create uncertainty where none is warranted," Schneiderman wrote.

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

Categories: State/Local

New bill seeks common drug rules for horses

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/22/2015 - 2:07am

Washington

Efforts to keep thoroughbred racing drug free often focus on the cheaters and the damage they do to the integrity of the sport. But there's relatively little attention paid to the most direct victim: The race horse.

"To me, that's the epicenter of the sport, the equine athlete," said Rep. Paul Tonko, himself a racing fan who saw American Pharoah win the Triple Crown last month at the Belmont Stakes. "You've got jockeys, trainers, owners that come into play, but there's no denying the strength of the horse is strength of the industry. This beautiful, strong, magical creature deserves and requires our respect."

Tonko on Thursday introduced the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act along with Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky. Both lawmakers represent avid horse-racing jurisdictions and are co-chairs of the Congressional Horse Caucus.

The bipartisan bill aims to bring the disparate drug rules of the 38 states with pari-mutuel racing under a common set of standards spelling out permissible medications and how and when they can be administered.

"Countries around the world have taken steps to have standards," Tonko said. "We don't have that. We have a patchwork of guidelines and regulations."

Tonko and Barr unveiled the bill the week before racing season gets underway in Saratoga Springs. It would vest responsibility for developing standards and penalties in racing representatives and the independent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "There's no government money in this," Tonko said.

Anabolic steroids have been off limits since the beginning of 2009, around the time New York banned them. But all racing states permit Furosemide, a powerful diuretic that allows horses to shed 20-30 pounds before a race, making them faster.

New York is a Furosemide-only state while Florida, for instance, also allows prednisolone sodium succinate, a strong anti-inflammatory medication given to horses for aches and pains.

States also have different rules for "withdrawal" times — how close to race day various drugs can be administered.

The law, if approved by Congress, would parallel the National Uniform Medication Program, formulated at an industry roundtable in Saratoga Springs.

It calls for medication thresholds for horses, designated veterinarians for administering Furosemide on race day, drug-testing facility accreditation and penalty guidelines for violations. Eight states have adopted all four phases — New York not being one of them.

Many in the racing world believe horses should run drug free.

"Perception is everything," said Arthur Hancock III, head of the grassroots Water Hay Oats Alliance and a Kentucky horse-farm owner with two Kentucky Derby winners to his credit. He recalled a marketing executive who told him, "You sell the sizzle and not steak when you market something."

"In racing, there's not the sizzle there used to be," Hancock said. "We feel in order to restore racing to greatness, we need a clean sport."

But for Tonko, the race horse is never far from the legislative equation.

When it comes to drugs, "the horse has no choice in matter," he said. "We owe it to the horse."

dan@hearstdc.com

Categories: State/Local
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