In late October, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics issued a draft advisory opinion that if adopted could have a major impact on campaign giving to New York's three statewide elected officials.
In the weeks since, attorneys from the offices of those very politicians — Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli — have provided input to JCOPE that could well end up narrowing the impacts of the opinion, which was intended to prevent politicians from potentially using their legal powers to coerce campaign contributions.
At a JCOPE meeting on Tuesday, JCOPE counsel Monica Stamm said she had collected input on the draft regulations from the offices of Cuomo, Schneiderman and DiNapoli, among others, and heard concerns the regulations had been written in an "overbroad" way.
Only DiNapoli's office provided a formal, written comment to JCOPE outlining its concerns in an eight-page letter. It's not clear exactly what advice came from the camps of Cuomo and Schneiderman, and neither office would provide more information to the Times Union.
The draft JCOPE opinion, as initially proposed several weeks ago, would bar statewide elected officials and legislators from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions from "any person or entity" being targeted by that elected official's office through an investigation, prosecution or audit. If ultimately approved by JCOPE's commissioners, it also would bar soliciting and accepting campaign contributions from targets of an official's lawsuit.
No further official action was taken by JCOPE on the draft opinion on Tuesday, and it remains under consideration.
JCOPE spokesman Walter McClure said it was not unusual for the ethics agency to seek input from elected officials impacted by its proposed policies. He noted that lobbyists were routinely consulted for comment on policies concerning that industry. "It's normal to get the opinion of the people it would have an effect on," McClure said. "We work with the covered communities to make sure it makes sense."
This particular opinion could be especially sensitive, and not only because it impacts issues concerning potential pay-to-play politics.
At the time the draft opinion was released in late October, David Grandeau — the state's former top ethics official and generally a strident JCOPE critic — praised the draft advisory opinion as "the greatest thing I've seen done in ethics enforcement in the past 10 years." As written, Grandeau said, it appeared the opinion would cover matters involving New York's banking, insurance, real estate, unions and casino industries — all major campaign donors – because various state agencies have the powers outlined by JCOPE draft opinion.
In other words, it would cover agencies under the purview of Cuomo and not just the separately elected officials with whom he has sometimes frosty relations: DiNapoli, who has audit powers, and Schneiderman, who has investigatory powers. If so, the regulations would impact the governor's own fundraising.
Six of JCOPE's 14 commissioners are gubernatorial appointees, and many of its top staff have worked at one point for the governor. Good-government groups have expressed concerns about the body's independence from the Cuomo administration.
On Tuesday, DiNapoli's office provided a copy of the letter it sent to JCOPE citing concerns about the draft opinion. DiNapoli's office echoed Grandeau's belief that as first written, the draft opinion would indeed cover the "activities of all executive branch agencies" headed by Cuomo appointees.
"The opinion casts an incredibly wide net over government operations, covering all statewide elected officials and their respective offices and the investigative, prosecutorial and audit powers exercised by those offices," wrote Nancy Groenwegen, DiNapoli's governmental general counsel.
Groenwegen later added that the comptroller's office presumed "such far-reaching results are not intended" by JCOPE staff.
The opinion comes at a time of transition for JCOPE, which is currently conducting a national search for a new executive director. One of the candidates is Kevin Gagan, the body's current chief of staff and special counsel, and a former Cuomo aide during his term in the attorney general's office.
One group has formally called for JCOPE not to narrow the opinion's scope, but to go even further: The New York City Bar Association sent a letter on Monday to the ethics watchdog calling on the panel to limit contributions from those with pending legislative matters before a state politician.
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The state Board of Regents on Monday discussed what will be a request for an additional $2.4 billion in state funding for education funding, including $2.1 billion more in base, or operating, aid.
The request contains several pots of money, including one to help restore some of the aid withheld after the 2008 financial crash. Additionally, board members and state Education Department staffers pointed to the desire to help local school districts because many cannot raise their local property taxes due to the state's property tax cap.
Under the cap, districts can raise their levies by 2 percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. But with the CPI expected to be zero due to low inflation, the cap may be zero as well. To exceed the cap, districts need a 60 percent supermajority vote on the budget.
However, school districts' labor contracts have built-in raises, and they face rising employee health insurance rates, making it difficult to maintain flat budgets.
"Even in the years of the recession, the school district costs were increasing and they continue to increase," Brian Cechnicki, the state Education Department's director of education finance, told members of the Board of Regents on Monday.
He explained that many district costs are expected to rise 3 percent next year.
The $2.4 billion request that the Regents are finalizing should be completed in December, said board member James Tallon.
At that time, experts in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget division will be finalizing its proposal for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which starts in April. Once that is offered in January, the Assembly and Senate will weigh in with their own school spending plans.
This year's state school funding level is about $23.5 billion. With the additional funding, it's $25.9 billion.
When local property taxes and federal aid is added, education spending would top $60 billion.
In a survey released by the New York State School Boards Association on Monday, 38 percent of more than 600 respondents said they would consider asking voters to override the cap if that cap was zero percent. Moreover, two-thirds believe the cap will come in at zero percent, especially because the CPI so far has been flat.
"With no growth allowed in their tax levies, we expect more school boards to attempt a tax cap override in order to meet their rising expenses," School Boards Association Executive Director Timothy Kremer said. "We'll know more in 2016 when school boards begin the budgeting process in earnest and share various budgeting scenarios with their communities."
Since the tax cap took effect in 2012, an average of about 30 districts, or 4 percent, have sought overrides each year.
Last year it was 18, or just under 3 percent.
While the education lobby has said the cap puts schools in an economic bind, others have noted that New York has the nation's highest per-pupil spending level, more than $21,000— which is twice the national average.
Among the items the Regents are looking at is a $75 million allocation for "career"-oriented classes such as those found in vocational programs and a doubling of the $75 million allocated this year for the 20 "persistently struggling" schools that are in receivership or under the sole control of their local superintendents. If those schools don't markedly improve, they are set to be taken over by outside entities, such as charter schools or colleges, next year.
The Regents would want extra funding for the 124 "struggling schools" that have two years to improve before facing an outside takeover.
Additionally, the Regents want another $400 million for "expense-based" items such as transportation and building costs, which are distinct from regular operating costs, which are largely salaries and benefits.
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Sen. Krueger, the author, visiting a school (photo via @LizKrueger)
In October, Governor Cuomo stood alongside former Vice President Al Gore and reiterated his commitment to reducing New York's carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030, as well as his willingness to phase out New York's coal-fired power plants. These were laudable statements in a high-profile public forum. Unfortunately, these goals will remain out of reach as long as the state continues to send the wrong market signals by requiring New Yorkers to underwrite dirty and uneconomical coal plants through increased electricity bills.
With just weeks left before global climate negotiations begin in Paris, now is the time for the Governor to make an enforceable commitment to phasing out coal-fired power by the end of the decade and ensuring a just transition for workers and communities dependent on coal.
New York's four remaining coal-fired power plants – Cayuga, Dunkirk, Huntley and Somerset – contribute 13 percent of New York's electricity sector carbon pollution. They no longer make a profit, yet the state has been keeping them operational at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Dunkirk plant has received $90 million to continue operating through the end of 2015, and the Cuomo administration approved up to another $200 million over the next ten years; the Cayuga plant is receiving $155 million to continue operating through 2017, and has recently asked for an additional $145 million. These costs are paid for by local electricity customers, with plant owners pocketing the profits. Yet according to the utilities National Grid and NYSEG, transmission upgrades, many of which will be needed regardless of whether the coal plants remain operational, could address reliability issues at significantly lower cost when the plants close.
Taking these plants off-line will get us one third of the way to the state's carbon reduction goal while safeguarding the thousands of New Yorkers threatened by dangerous coal-fired pollution. But the state is currently sending market signals that directly contradict the Governor's emission reduction and renewable energy goals.
Coal plant owners are coming to expect that they can rely on New York's energy customers to keep their outdated and unnecessary plants on life support, a fact made clear by the recent request from Beowulf Energy to purchase Cayuga and Somerset. Time after time our government has required New Yorkers to foot the bill for dirty energy rather than investing in transmission upgrades that could get ahead of the curve on local reliability issues at a fraction of the cost.
New Yorkers are ready to pitch in to help transition away from coal. There is strong public and political support for a responsible transition plan for coal reliant communities - one that would require only a small portion of the money currently being spent. Earlier this year I joined over one-third of New York's legislature in signing a letter, authored by Assembly Member Barbara Lifton, urging Governor Cuomo to end coal subsidies and create a thoughtful statewide transition plan. Next, we will rally with elected and other allies, including the Sierra Club, as we continue to push for a smart, responsible path forward.
We are nearing a tipping point when it comes to the damage we're doing to our climate. As we approach the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, New York is poised to be an international leader in the fight against climate disruption. If we stop clinging to policies that keep our energy sector stuck in the past, the Empire State has the potential to lead the world in the bold transition to a clean energy economy. Governor Cuomo could lead us there by speeding up his commitment to phase out coal-fired power and taking a key step toward ensuring carbon pollution becomes a thing of the past.
Liz Krueger is a State Senator representing Manhattan. She is on Twitter @LizKrueger.
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In the latest debate to balance the imperatives of security and humanity, several New York state elected officials weighed in Monday on the question of whether the U.S. should continue or curtail its resettlement of Syrian refugees in the wake of Friday's terror attacks in Paris.
Though most of the attackers identified so far have been French or Belgian citizens, authorities in Europe have said one of the alleged perpetrators has been identified as Ahmad al-Mohammad, a Syrian national who had passed through Greece in October as part of the wave of refugees fleeing the war-torn nation. The self-identified Islamic State in Syria has claimed credit for the operation, which has so far resulted in more than 120 deaths and hundreds of injuries, many of them critical.
Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, cited al-Mohammad's trail as evidence that "the U.S. should immediately suspend its Syrian displaced person support program until we know more about what happened in Paris and until we can assure the safety and security of our people."
"The number one function of government is to protect its people," Gibson said in a statement.
In the four years since the Syrian conflict began, fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees are estimated to have made it to the United States. Before the most recent attacks, the Obama administration announced plans to admit "at least" 10,000 refugees from Syria in the next 12 months, when the nation will take in roughly 85,000 refugees from around the world, according to State Department estimates.
New York, Florida, California and Texas receive the most resettled refugees. All have received at least 30,000 refugees over the past decade, according to the State Department.
On Monday, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott directed his state's refugee resettlement program not to participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees, an action detailed in a letter to President Barack Obama that also called on him to bar all Syrian refugees from settling in the U.S.
The governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan and Massachusetts — all Republicans — made similar statements since Friday's attacks, while governors of other states issued statements insisted they would support federal resettlement efforts. Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, a Democrat, said those who won't allow Syrian refugees into their states were "stomping on the qualities that make America great."
Immigration experts, however, say that governors have little influence over federal resettlement policy, though they can make conditions less welcoming for refugees in their states.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's press office refused to respond to questions on the topic. It represented uncharacteristic silence by Cuomo on an immigration issue.
"We are not afraid of immigrants in New York — because we are immigrants, and children of immigrants, and we know how much they contribute to the state," reads the governor's message on the website of the state's Office for New Americans, which was established by Cuomo in 2013 as a central resource for immigrants.
At a Monday news conference in Turkey, President Barack Obama rebutted the idea that American security demanded an embargo on Syrian refugee resettlement. "The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism," he said.
Obama denounced as "shameful" the suggestion that the U.S. should give precedence to Christian refugees from Syria, a notion floated by GOP presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.
Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, assailed that suggestion as "against everything we stand for as a nation," and compared it to the nation's failure to accept more of the European Jews who attempted to flee European fascism in the 1930s.
"The safety of Americans must continue to be the top priority, and any future refugee must be put through a rigorous screening process before being admitted," Tonko said. "But I denounce the politics of fear currently being employed by those running for president, as well as those already in office at the federal, state and local level."
The Capital Region has not been immune to debates over refugee policy. In 2014, Tonko defended the federal Department of Health and Human Service's examination of Kenwood Academy, the former convent on the southern edge of Albany, as a possible temporary home for undocumented refugee children from the U.S.-Mexican border.
Tonko's Republican opponent, businessman Jim Fischer, vehemently opposed the idea, at one point saying the young refugees "could be carrying infectious diseases." The plan was never implemented, and Tonko won by a large margin.
Appearing Monday on MSNBC, former New York Gov. George Pataki — another GOP presidential candidate — was asked about the debate.
"There's zero ability to vet those refugees [and] we know some of them are terrorists." Pataki said. "What are we going to do? Call up the Syrian government and say, 'Hey, by the way, is this guy a terrorist?'"
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