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Cuomo Seizes on Wage Issue as Legislature Sits Paralyzed by Scandal, Partisanship

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 05/26/2015 - 1:00am

Gov. Cuomo at a minimum wage rally (Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

"Do we have any members of labor in the house today? I can't hear you!" Gov. Andrew Cuomo shouted to a crowd of union members holding signs touting the "Fight for $15." Cuomo held a large rally in Manhattan's Union Square earlier this month as he announced he had instructed his labor commissioner to empanel a wage board to consider upping the minimum wage for fast food workers.

Cuomo draped himself in the labor movement, leading chants, hitting familiar themes of inequality and working class unity. But through it all Cuomo actually avoided saying what he thought the minimum wage should be. A number of critics say the governor instead delivered what they call "classic Cuomoian double talk."

Cuomo has been pushing an increase in the wage, though, albeit not to the $15 per hour rate that many are calling for - and that was emblazoned on the signs of many in the Union Square crowd. And, Cuomo did empanel the fast food wage board, the recommendations of which are due in July. "Some people call it income inequality and we've been talking about it for years," the governor told the crowd. "Unfortunately we've made little progress because it's not really income inequality because we've always had income inequality and we always will have income inequality," he said. "We never said in this country it should be equal incomes, it's not. But words matter and what we're really talking about is a state of affairs that has our economy commonly dealing with companies that don't want to pay a true minimum wage."

On Wednesday as the wage board convened, a number of progressive groups like Common Cause NY and labor unions rallied in Albany with Cuomo advisor and former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Quinn repeatedly avoided reporters' inquiries about whether Cuomo actually supports a $15 per hour minimum wage. Quinn said it would be "unfair" for Cuomo to say what he actually wants the board to do. Cuomo has not come out in support of a $15 minimum wage - for New York City or the state - and has generally taken the middle ground between business interests and the progressive wing of his party.

Some legislators and advocates are concerned that Cuomo is simply seizing a popular national issue because it is evermore challenging to move the scandal-ridden state Legislature on his campaign promises and the governor wants to counter his sinking poll numbers. Others say they believe Cuomo is sincere and that his support will buoy the issue.

The Cuomo Administration has a history of convening supposedly neutral commissions and touting independent outcomes while having seemingly already decided the results. The administration heavily influenced commissions on taxes and ethics and most recently insisted a decision on fracking was non-political and free of gubernatorial influence before turning around and touting the action as a sign of the governor's commitment to progressive stances. The wage board will study the issue of fast food wages, take testimony, and then make a recommendation to the Department of Labor which can implement an increase.

In announcing the wage board, the Cuomo administration noted that "Under New York State law, a Wage Board can suggest changes to the minimum wage in a specific industry or job classification if it finds that wages are insufficient to provide for the life and health of workers within that industry or classification."

Cuomo's website has a page dedicated to his push for a minimum wage increase that features many pictures of labor rallies - absent from the page are any pictures with the increasingly common "Fight for $15" signs or mention of $15 per hour as a goal.

Jess Wisneski of progressive group Citizen Action said she has no doubt Cuomo is sincere and committed in his efforts for fast food workers. "He came out in front of signs saying "$15 an hour,"" Wisneski told Gotham Gazette. "I don't think the governor would do it if he didn't feel comfortable with that. The governor is a very calculated guy. He can't prescribe it but he has shown solidarity with workers."

Wisneski notes that if the state wage board does deliver $15 it will set national precedent as all previous action on the issue has happened on the city level. (The Los Angeles City Council voted last week to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, leading to calls from Mayor Bill de Blasio and others that New York City must do the same - though the city is unable to set its own wage.) A $15 rate- or even close to that - for fast food workers would put pressure on the Legislature to deliver a larger increase for workers in all industries across the state. The state's current minimum wage is $8.75 and scheduled to increase to $9 at the end of the year.

"I honestly think this will have national implications," said Wisneski of Citizen Action. "The only reason the governor needed to go this route is because the Senate Republicans wouldn't do anything on the minimum wage." She said she believes Cuomo's action combined with the Los Angeles move and action taken in Seattle and elsewhere will invigorate the overall push for an increase to a $15 mininum.

Cuomo's action on fast food wages has bolstered his relationship with progressive groups like the Working Families Party that fell out with Cuomo after he reneged on promises he made to win the WFP's endorsement before last year's election - promises that included supporting a $15 minimum wage increase for New York City.

While those relationships have been enhanced, Cuomo's action has inflamed business groups that see the governor as either pandering to the progressive side of his party or subverting the legislative process. The National Federation of Independent Businesses in New York is holding its own rallies to oppose any wage increase and is warning that any increase could put small franchise owners out of business.

"Governor Cuomo is setting a frightening precedent by governing via executive order and completely usurping the legislative process," said Mike Durant, president of the New York chapter of NFIB, in a statement earlier this month. "The announcement of his intention to empanel yet another Wage Board will only embolden those calling on the State to dramatically increase labor costs on the full spectrum of small employers across New York. While NFIB does not represent the corporate fast food industry, this Wage Board assuredly will have a predetermined outcome and will set a disastrous course for future minimum wage discussion that will impact New York small businesses."

State Senator Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens, said he expects Cuomo's push to increase awareness of the plight of fast food workers and low-income workers in general, which he sees as a very good thing. Peralta is the sponsor of a bill that would require retail businesses that employ 50 or more people to give workers a two week notice before changing their work schedules. "We need this to give workers stability, allow them to know what they will be paid for two weeks, to manage bills, to go to doctor's appointments without risking their jobs," Peralta said.

Peralta admits that a lot of groups are currently focused on the minimum wage but, "they understand the importance of this bill."

Advocates and legislators understand that realistically whatever the wage board decides will likely be the best they can get this year as Senate Republicans are still reeling from the arrest of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos and doing their best to deliver for their biggest corporate donors that help them hold the majority.

"I don't think the current Senate majority can do much on economic justice issues," said Wisneski. "We are going to work on increasing public awareness on these issues over the summer and the pressure will only increase on them for next session." Wisneski admits that real legislative action may have to wait until after the 2016 elections when Democrats hope to take the Senate by riding Hillary Clinton's coattails.

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

Categories: State/Local

Espada is back in NY after stepping over line in Penn.

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 05/25/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Disgraced former state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. is back in New York state after he reportedly stepped over the line — literally — in the minimum security prison where he had been residing in Pennsylvania.

The onetime Democratic Senate majority leader had until nine months ago been in the Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institute in Pennsylvania serving a five-year sentence for embezzling money from his Bronx health care network, Soundview.

But he's now in the federal Bureau of Prison's Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

Federal prison officials don't comment on inmates or their disciplinary status, and Espada couldn't immediately be reached in the prison.

But according to a person familiar with the case, Espada was caught walking beyond the boundary of the fenceless minimum security unit in Pennsylvania.

Espada is launching an appeal of his case, according to court records.

He has parted ways with at least one attorney and has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to get a court-appointed lawyer.

"We have significant differences of opinion about the relevant legal issues," wrote one of Espada's former lawyers, New Jersey-based Daniel Perez, in a court document outlining his departure from the case last summer.

In a letter sent to the court in April, Espada — representing himself — noted that the "Appellant, a low security inmate, is housed in a maximum security detention center in Brooklyn N.Y. with very limited access to the Law Library.''

Seeking release from prison, Espada cited Dr. Martin Luther King's famous observation that "justice deferred is justice denied."

Prison records indicate that Espada had been in the Schuylkill facility with his son, Pedro Gautier Espada.

The younger Espada was sentenced to six months and was released in February 2014, according to prison records. He couldn't be reached Wednesday.

The elder Espada was at the center of the June 2009 state Senate coup in which he and another Democrat, Hiram Monserrate, switched allegiance to the Republicans, briefly upending the Democrats' narrow majority.

Monserrate was later ejected from the Senate after he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend.

The Republican leader at the time, Dean Skelos, has in the last month given up his leadership post after facing a federal complaint alleging extortion, fraud and bribe solicitation.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Correction

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 05/25/2015 - 1:07am

New York state law bars discrimination against LGBT couples and individuals who seek to become foster parents, according to the state's Office of Children and Family Services. A story in Wednesday's Times Union incorrectly said state law was silent on the matter.

The name of a Clark University psychology professor was incorrect in a May 16 Solutions article. He is Jeffrey Arnett.

Accuracy is a fundamental of journalism, but mistakes sometimes occur. The Times Union's policy is to acknowledge errors as promptly as possible. Mistakes may be brought to the attention of the editors by calling 454-5420.

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, May 26

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 05/25/2015 - 1:00am

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

EYES ON ALBANY: The Legislature is back in session on Wednesday and Thursday this week, two of the final 12 days until session is due to end Wednesday June 17. Will there simply be a big end-of-session deal as in years past? Will there be compromise reached to extend New York City rent regulations, the 421-a real estate tax abatement, or mayoral control of city schools? Will there be a deal reached on a hike to the minimum wage - or will Governor Andrew Cuomo continue to move through the wage board he had the Department of Labor convene? Will Senate Republicans agree to some semblance of the DREAM Act or to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18? Will Assembly Democrats agree to the education investment tax credit that the governor and Senate Republicans are behind? Those are among the top questions heading into the final weeks of negotiations. [Read the latest on Albany from Gotham Gazette]

CITY BUDGET HEARINGS: The City Council continues its executive budget hearings this week. The Council is pushing the de Blasio administration for increased funding on a number of fronts, including for additional police officers and parks, libraries, and more. The parks department budget takes center stage on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Council is also legislating this week, passing bills through committees and through the whole Council, with a full-body stated meeting set for Wednesday. There will also be new bills introduced on Wednesday, stay tuned and find the details we know thus far below.

Mayor Bill de Blasio spent his Monday delivering remarks at a Memorial Day event at The Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, then marching in the Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade in Queens.

On Tuesday, de Blasio will be back on Staten Island: he and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit a classroom and make an announcement at the The Michael J. Petrides School. According to the Staten Island Advance, de Blasio and Fariña will announce that more schools, including some on Staten Island like the high school at Petrides, will be joining the PROSE program that allows certain city schools to implement their own new initiatives that might be outside the teachers union contract.

De Blasio is expected to head to Albany Wednesday to talk with legislative leaders about end-of-session priorities.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Tuesday
It's going to feel like Monday all day on Tuesday.

Also:
Last week, "First Lady Chirlane McCray and Mic released a video of the First Lady answering questions she has been asked. From "Which First Ladies inspire you?" to "Are you still a lesbian?" The questions the First Lady answered on video are intended to encourage additional submissions before a live Facebook Q&A, hosted by Mic (facebook.com/MicMedia)...Tuesday, May 26 [at 11 a.m.]. Mental health is the topic of this Facebook Q&A."

On Tueday morning's Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, segments are planned to discuss Albany news with Ken Lovett of the Daily News and the city's new NYCHA plan with Michael Kelly, NYCHA's general manager.

On Tuesday at noon at City Hall, "elected officials, advocates, school crossing guards, parents and students will rally on the steps of City Hall to improve working conditions and raise the headcount of school crossing guards across New York City. Specifically, advocates at the rally will call for a much needed 10% increase in the school crossing guard headcount for FY 2016, as well as significant job quality improvements." The effort is being led by Council Members Brad Lander and Vanessa L. Gibson as well as Rosenthal, Cabrera, Menchaca, Cornegy, Deutsch, Lancman and others; plus Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, Local 372 President Shaun Francois, Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives & Families for Safe Streets, and School Crossing Guards, parents, students, and other community members.

Tuesday's City Council schedule includes executive budget hearings:

  • 10 a.m: The Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.
  • Noon: the Committee on Parks and Recreation. (There will be a big parks-related rally at City Hall on Wednesday).
  • 1:30 p.m: The Committee on Environmental Protection.

Also at the City Council:

  • 10 a.m: The Committee on Education meets to discuss a bill that would require the Department of Education to report annually on "progress and efforts toward increasing diversity within schools, including but not limited to, data within charter schools and special programs" and a resolution that the DOE would officially recognize the benefits and importance of school diversity.
  • 11:30 a.m: the Committee on Courts and Legal Services meets to discuss a local law to amend the NYC charter, in relation to creating the Office of Civil Justice.
  • Noon: the Committee on Health meets to discuss a law that would require quarterly reporting from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) that includes any physical or mental health performance indicators reported to them by any healthcare provider in jails to be sent to the Mayor's office, and the council's office – while also posting the reports online.
  • 1:00 p.m: the Committee on Transportation will meet to discuss a truck route compliance study, a bill to require a study in relation to pedestrian and bicyclist safety on truck routes, and a law amend the administrative code of the city in relation to side-guards.
  • 2.00 p.m: the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will hear nominations to the Board of Health, the TLC, the Youth Board, and the Board of Correction.

At 2 p.m. outside City Hall: "Public Advocate Letitia James will stand with elected officials, advocates, daycare providers, parents, and children to call on the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) to save day care centers. For years, many day care centers have operated with direct leases through the City. Numerous day care centers are now closing as these leases are up for renewal. Public Advocate James and others are calling on ACS to reinstate child care for the capacity that has been lost and to ensure that no additional day care centers are closed."

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, "Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will induct the new class of members for Brooklyn's eighteen community boards during a ceremony held in the courtroom of Brooklyn Borough Hall; this group includes teenage appointees for the first time, part of an effort he has launched to advance youth involvement in the borough's civic matters."

On Tuesday evening at Museum of the City of New York, "Preserving the Fabric of Our Neighborhoods," an event sponsored by the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation and co-sponsored by a lengthy list of organizations. "Join a group of leading experts as they explore the intersections between historic preservation and affordable housing, portraying how preservation encourages sustainable development and helps to stabilize communities facing financial distress." Panelists include Gale Brewer, Borough President of Manhattan; Ingrid Gould Ellen, Paulette Goddard Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, Director of the Urban Planning Program at NYU Wagner; Ellen Baxter, Executive Director of Broadway Housing Communities;Michelle de la Uz, Executive Director of Fifth Avenue Committee; Simeon Bankoff (moderator), Executive Director, Historic Districts Council.

Wednesday
On Wednesday morning at City Hall, City Council Member Costa Constantinides will hold a press conference to announce the introduction of two bills to encourage organ donation. He will be joined by Council Member Ben Kallos; Helen Irving, President & CEO, LiveOnNY, formerly New York Organ Donor Network; Ellen Yoshiuchi, National Program Director, National Kidney Foundation; and Transplant Recipient International Organization (TRIO). "New York State ranks 50th out of 50 nationwide in percent of residents who are registered organ donors. Only 24% of New Yorkers are registered organ donors compared to 50% of residents nationwide."

Wednesday morning in Manhattan, City & State will host "Future of Healthcare in New York." The event will include "Back and Forth with Ram Raju, President / CEO of the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation...Panel of Officials, Advocates and Experts on Major Shifts in Healthcare and Healthcare Delivery: Jason Helgerson, Director of Medicaid and Deputy NYS Health Commissioner; Pamela Brier, President & CEO, Maimonides Hospital; Linda Gibbs, Principal, Bloomberg Associates, Former NYC Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services...Back and Forth with Dr. Mary Bassett, Commissioner, New York City Dept. of Health."

Wednesday morning at Baruch College, the release of "Overcoming the Odds: The Settlement House Advantage and panel discussion on the role of settlement houses in fostering and strengthening individuals, families, and communities, and New York City as a whole" with keynote speaker Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services and a panel discussion. "Leaders in local government, social policy research, philanthropy, and the non-profit sector will speak on the unique settlement house model—an historical, well-respected approach that is more relevant than ever today. The report being released brings to light 3,000 voices of those who have benefitted from the broad spectrum of integral services provided by settlement houses, such as early childhood education, after school programs, adult education, senior services, community building, and more" - via United Neighborhood Houses.

Mayor de Blasio is due in Albany Wednesday for meetings with legislative leaders.

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is set to make an announcement outside of Tweed Courthouse in Manhattan. He'll be outlining a new legislative proposal of ethics reforms.

Also at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council's parks committee, is helping organize a rally to push for more parks-related funding in the coming fiscal year 2016 city budget. "Please join New Yorkers for Parks, The New York League of Conservation Voters, El Puente, American Society of Landscape Architects, advocates, activists, community gardens enthusiasts and elected officials from across the city for a rally to stand up and fight for our parks."

At 11:45 a.m. at Tweed, "A broad and diverse coalition will urge Mayor de Blasio to include universal free lunch for all public school children in the final city budget for 2016." The rally will be led by "Leaders and Members of the Lunch 4 Learning Campaign; New York City Public Advocate Letitia James; New York City Council Education Committee Chair Daniel Dromm; Council Members; Parents; Educators; Pediatricians; Advocates."

Wednesday's City Council schedule includes:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services will meet to pass a resolution for the Governor and the State Legislature to pass two laws that increase the income threshold for the senior citizen homeowner's exemption program, and the income threshold for the disabled homeowner's exemption program.
  • Also at 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance meets on legislation related to the Lower East Side Business Improvement District and a bill that provides a one hundred dollar tax credit to each taxpayer who adopts a dog or a cat from a shelter.
  • At 10:30 a.m. the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to continue its discussion from the prior day and vote on potential board members.
  • And at 1:30 p.m. the City Council will have a full-body Stated Meeting to vote bills through the full Council and see introduction of new legislation.

In Albany on Wednesday:

  • At 11:00 a.m. the Senate Standing Committee on Finance will meet.
  • From noon to 6:00 p.m. at the Legislative Office Building there will be a forum/town hall meeting that will focus on legislation related to issues of privacy, data breach, and appropriate penalties for violations.
  • At noon, the Senate Standing Committee on Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business will meet.
  • At 1:00 p.m. the Senate Standing Committee on Codes will meet.
  • At 1:30 p.m. the Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations will meet on a variety of bills.
  • Also at 1:30, the Senate Standing Committee on Children and Families will meet.
  • The Senate is due in session at 3:00 p.m. The Assembly is also due in session on Wednesday.

Wednesday evening is Citizens Union's 2015 "Spring for Reform" event. This year it is "a reception celebrating leaders who build communities and strengthen neighborhoods." Honorees include Jack Doyle of New Settlement Apartments; Jessica Lappin of Alliance for Downtown New York; Luna Ranjot of Adhikaar; Tucker Reed of Downtown Brooklyn Partnership; Alexa Sewell of Settlement Housing Fund; and Ben Wellington of I Quant NY. Errol Louis of NY1, the Daily News, and CUNY Journalism School, is a special guest speaker.

On Wednesday evening in Brooklyn, City Council Members Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca and Steve Levin, the D15 Community Education Council, and D15 Superintendent Anita Skop, are "hosting a panel discussion and public forum... Reimagining the Middle School Admissions Process in District 15" at John Jay Campus auditorium in Park Slope.

Wednesday evening in Albany, City & State NY is hosting "On 421-A," sponsored by UP4NYC, and dealing with the controversial tax abatement program that, at least in theory, incentivizes developers to build affordable housing units along with market-rate housing. Keynote remakrs by Gary LeBarbera, President of the NYC Building and Construction Trades Council, and a panel featuring LaBarbera, State Senator Diane Savino, ALIGN's Maritza Silva-Farrell, and Assembly Member Francisco Moya (pending confrimation).

Also Wednesday evening in Albany, state Senator Tony Avella of Queens is having a fundraiser, with special guest Jeff Klein, who heads the Independent Democratic Conference that Avella is a part of.

Thursday
"The next public meeting of the New York City Campaign Finance Board will be held on Thursday, May 28 at 10:00 AM."

Two City Council hearings scheduled for Thursday:

  • At 10:00 a.m. the City Council Committee on Education will hold its executive budget hearing.
  • At 1:00 p.m. the Committee on Public Housing, will hold an oversight hearing on "The State's $100 Million Allocation to NYCHA."

In Albany on Thursday:

  • At 9:30 a.m., several Senate committee meetings: the Senate Standing Committee on Energy and Telecommunications will meet; the Senate Standing Committee on Judiciary will meet; the Senate Standing Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation will meet; the Senate Standing Committee on Consumer Protection will meet; the Senate Standing Committee on Transportation will meet; and the Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs will meet.
  • At 10 a.m. the Senate Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation will meet; as will the Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction.
  • At 10:30 a.m. the Senate Standing Committee on Social Services will meet.
  • At 11:00 a.m. the Senate is due in session.
  • At noon, the Senate Standing Committee on Health will meet.
  • The Assembly is also due in sessoin on Thursday.

On Thursday evening, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams hosts "Building a Better PA/PTA" focused on parent engagement and more.

Friday and the weekend
Friday's City Council schedule includes an 11:30 a.m. executive budget hearing for the Committees on Community Development and Youth Services and an executive budget hearing at 1 p.m. for the Committee on Higher Education.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Rosie Mendez announced that "the Council will host a "Follow Me Friday" tour of Manhattan's East Village with local business owners, community members, and elected officials on Friday, May 29th. The Follow Me Friday Small Business Crawl will help highlight and promote East Village small businesses recovering from the aftermath of the March 26th building explosion and will begin with a moment of silence at the site of the explosion on 2nd Avenue and 7th Street. The small business tour will begin at 5:30 PM and will include" several stops at cafes, restaurants, and other businesses.

On Saturday, Council Member Jumaane Williams invites New Yorkers to participate in a kick-off to June's Gun Violence Awareness Month: "On Saturday, I call on New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs to join me during the fifth annual 'Not In My Hood' march in Brooklyn to kick off June's Gun Violence Awareness Month."

On Saturday in the Bronx, a CUNY Citizenship Now event with City Council Member Ritchie Torres and State Senator Gustavo Rivera.

Also Saturday in the Bronx, the City's community planning office is holding a public "Visioning Workshop" for "Jerome Avenue Community Planning."

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Bernard Agrest and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local

Legislature bright spot threatened

Albany Times/Union - Sun, 05/24/2015 - 12:07pm

Albany

In a Legislature derided for a top-down "three men in a room" system of governance, a rule allowing bills to move more democratically through the state Senate has been a rare bright spot.

But a recent legal interpretation by an attorney for the Republican majority could render it effectively meaningless.

When Democrats assumed their short-lived majority in 2009 after decades in the minority, they implemented the rule allowing for "Motions for Committee Consideration." The stab at reform is intended to allow rank-and-file lawmakers to force their bills onto a legislative committee's agenda for voting — even if the majority-party chair in control of that agenda is personally opposed to the legislation.

Republicans preserved the rule when they retook control of the Senate in 2011. But last week, at a meeting of the Senate Corporations Committee, a counsel for the majority made a legal interpretation that could well undermine this particular effort to decentralize power.

The issue arose because Brooklyn state Sen. Daniel Squadron, a Democrat, is pushing a bill to close the so-called "LLC loophole" in state election law, which allows developers to funnel millions of dollars into local elections (and which disproportionately benefits Senate Republicans). Squadron says Republicans are manipulating the legislative process to avoid having to take unpopular votes to keep the "LLC loophole."

"We created Motions for Committee Consideration so members could ensure a vote on important bills, not so the majority can throw these bills down rabbit holes," Squadron said in a statement to the Times Union.

The odyssey of Squadron's bill began when he introduced in bill into the Elections Committee on the first day of the legislative session, Jan. 7. According to the rule, Squadron then had to wait 45 days before he could file a Motion for Committee Consideration forcing a vote.

The committee's Republican chairman, Richard Funke, then had 45 days to consider Squadron's motion. On April 27, after the post-budget recess, Funke's committee was finally forced to take up the measure. But instead of taking an up-or-down vote – and forwarding the bill along for a potential full Senate vote – the Elections Committee's GOP members simply declined to take a position on it, and passed the legislation to the Senate Committee on Corporations. (The majority party largely controls whether bills are forwarded to secondary committees.)

At a May 12 meeting, the Corporations Committee's Republican chairman, Michael Ranzenhofer, did not put the LLC loophole bill on the agenda – despite a Senate rule that seemed to obligate its inclusion. The rule states that if a bill is "referred to a standing committee having secondary reference the bill shall be considered within the next two committee meetings." The May 12 meeting was Corporation's second since the bill had been referred from the Elections Committee.

Yet according to the Republican counsel who spoke at the hearing, James Curran, Squadron needed to file yet another Motion for Committee Consideration — carrying another waiting period of up to 90 days — to force a vote in the second committee.

"Proper recourse is making a motion to this committee — a Motion for Committee Consideration," Curran said.

But another 90-day waiting period would reach its expiration well into July — a month after the legislative session is over. It would also blow past an early May deadline for such motions to be "in order" under Senate rules.

In other words, using Curran's legal reasoning, the Senate majority could kill any Motion For Committee Consideration by simply passing a bill from one committee to another.

It's not clear, based on the Senate rules, how Curran arrived at the legal interpretation. A Senate Republican spokesman declined to comment.

At the meeting, Squadron said the ruling "makes it impossible to compel" a vote.

"I guess that's your interpretation," Curran replied.

"I don't think it's fair to call something my interpretation," Squadron said, "when it's a fact on the calendar."

According to Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group it's "not rare" for bills to be referred to a secondary committee. The GOP's legal interpretation "definitely undermines the purpose of having any rule," he added.

"This gets to the heart of what's wrong with the legislative process," said DeNora Getachew, campaign manager and legislative counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. "Part of the problem is who is getting to interpret the law."

Categories: State/Local

Tax cap has saved at least $7.6 billion, supporters say

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 05/23/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Tuesday's school budget votes marked the fourth year in which school districts, as well as other governmental bodies such as towns and counties, have been living under the property tax cap that Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed through at the start of his first term.

While government officials and groups like teachers unions have chafed under the mechanism — which holds annual tax increases to approximately 2 percent — a coalition of business groups argue the cap has saved New York taxpayers an estimated $7.6 billion since it first took effect.

"It's really been a total reset," said E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative think-tank the Empire Center, which joined sympathetic groups — including the state Business Council — at a presentation at the Capitol.

The tax cap law is set to expire or "sunset" in June 2016, although a unique clause tucked into the 2011 legislation creating the device links its survival to renewal of New York City's rent control laws, which are due for renewal in June of this year.

Few believe that the rent control laws will expire; lawmakers have kept them going for decades. And there's been no talk of letting the cap die, either.

But Senate Republicans and Cuomo on Tuesday said they believe the tax cap should be made permanent.

"The more we can do to keep property taxes down, the better off we are," said Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan, whose bill making the cap permanent was approved by the chamber Tuesday afternoon.

That vote came just after the Democrat-dominated Assembly passed its own one-house bill extending rent laws. Both measures are expected to be adjusted in final negotiations.

"The tax cap has successfully broken the cycle of skyrocketing property tax increases," said Cuomo in a statement.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie was less enthusiastic. The cap "is something that's on their list," he said, referring to Senate Republicans.

His conference's main priority for now is renewal of the rent controls, which keep costs in check for thousands of their constituents in New York City.

Education groups, especially teachers unions, insist that the cap helps perpetuate systemic underfunding of schools, especially in neighborhoods or regions burdened by poverty.

Lawmakers also will grapple with another downstate housing measure in the coming weeks: Continuation of the tax abatements for New York City developers. Known as the 421-a program, those could also be linked or used as a bargaining chip.

Senate Republicans are squarely behind 421-a, while Assembly Democrats are focused on rent control — although Heastie on Tuesday also acknowledged the importance of the developers' tax break as an incentive to various kinds of residential development.

One likely scenario could be renewing all three — rent control, 421-a and the tax cap — for another finite period of time.

On Tuesday, the Empire Center, the Business Council, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and other groups made their argument for a permanent tax cap by focusing on school taxes — a piece that makes up roughly two-thirds of the average household property tax bill, with county, municipal and others government entities making up the rest.

The $7.6 billion savings estimate was based on the historic growth of school taxes prior to the cap. McMahon pointed out that before the cap, school taxes over three decades rose an average of 6 percent annually.

Since the cap, annual growth has averaged 2.2 percent, which is the lowest rate of increase since 1982.

Voters in local school districts can exceed the cap with a two-thirds majority vote, although few have done so.

Tax cap supporters have even created a "Keep the Cap" website (http://www.keepthecap.com) that lays out estimated school tax savings by region since the advent of the cap.

In the greater Capital Region, for example, property tax payers have saved an estimated $587.2 million since the cap took effect, with $253 million worth of savings this year.

During a debate before Senate passage of the cap, Syracuse GOP Sen. John DeFrancisco said the cap is popular with constituents.

"I get more comments on the property tax than anything else," he said. "People want to keep it going. They don't want to go back to that old cycle."

The measure passed 47-13.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Schools agenda unfinished

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 05/23/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

The ink may be dry on the 2015-16 state budget, but legislative efforts to tweak its education elements before the end of the legislative session are far from over.

As Assembly Democrats finalized their changes to the state's new teacher evaluation system, state Senate Democrats called for passage of an education package that also includes evaluation fixes. The calls come with just 13 session days left on the legislative calendar.

The Assembly's legislation, which moved through the Rules Committee on Tuesday, would extend the teacher evaluation implementation timetable and de-link funding from the implementation of evaluations. It also would require the state education commissioner to review the Common Core academic standards.

The Senate Democrats' proposal also aims to de-link school aid from the implementation of evaluation plans by Nov. 15, and make optional the use of independent outside observers in the assessments.

The action in both houses came as the state Board of Regents wrapped a two-day meeting, which included the airing of serious concerns about the evaluation system.

"If we're going to have the right kind of plan — one that we're not going to tinker with again, one that we're not going to have to undo another year or two down the line — we want to make sure we have enough time to do the plan right," said state Sen. George Latimer, the Democratic conference's ranking member on the chamber's Education Committee.

Both conferences' proposals joined a chorus of end-of-session calls for further changes.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, said in a statement Sunday that the GOP will pass legislation to improve provisions enacted in the budget "to ensure that tests are age-appropriate for children and curriculum is consistent with higher learning standards."

Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea-Stewart Cousins signaled that she's open to working with the GOP on the evaluation system.

Adjusting the budget's education policy changes signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be an uphill effort. The governor did not relent on his budget-season push to crack down on "failing" teachers, despite criticism from teachers unions, public education advocates and some lawmakers.

Even so, Cuomo has shown some flexibility. Last month, he said it would be reasonable for the state Education Department to grant hardship exemptions for schools that can't meet the evaluation implementation deadline.

"You have to see the regulations, but as long as it is the exception and not the rule, I can understand that," Cuomo said.

Stewart-Cousins took the political middle ground when she was asked to assess Cuomo's potential receptiveness to more changes.

"I'm sure that he will be taking all the serious issues that we will be confronting over the next month case-by-case," she said. "There's an argument based on the fact that so many of us — on both sides of the aisle, both houses — are concerned about the current configuration as it relates to education."

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

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo: Sandra Lee doing 'as well as can be expected'

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 05/23/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Food Network television star Sandra Lee is recovering from breast cancer surgery.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, her boyfriend, says in a statement that Lee's double mastectomy concluded early Tuesday afternoon and that she is doing "as well as can be expected."

"On behalf of Sandy and myself, I want to thank everyone for their kind thoughts and prayers over the last few days," Cuomo said. "Your support has meant the world to us."

The 48-year-old lifestyle personality revealed her diagnosis on ABC's "Good Morning America" last week. Her surgery was initially scheduled for late last week but was delayed after Lee came down with an upper respiratory infection.

In her message posted to Facebook before the operation, Lee thanked those who offered prayers and messages of support.

Cuomo accompanied Lee to the hospital on Tuesday and plans to take some personal time to be with her following the procedure.

Categories: State/Local

Public education supporters slam Cuomo's tax credit proposal

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 05/23/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

The bruising battle between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and public education advocates is going another round as the end of the legislative session nears.

Cuomo controlled the narrative on his Education Investment Tax Credit proposal on Sunday. But on Monday, the state teachers union and advocacy groups spoke loudly in opposition to his plans to incentivize donations to institutions that help public and private schools and to help provide things like tuition payments for low- and middle-income students and cash for school supplies for public school teachers.

The New York State United Teachers union unveiled "Mr. Moneybags," a 60-second radio ad featuring a fictional fat cat who says the credit is "a scheme designed to favor us 'zillionaires' and our exclusive schools."

A narrator's voice breaks in: "So let me get this straight: The rich will get millions of dollars in tax breaks, cutting the resources that could go to all kids?"

"Oh please," Mr. Moneybags shoots back. "When you're rich like me, public schools just aren't your concern."

A coalition of groups including the League of Women Voters, the Alliance for Quality Education and NYSUT repeated that message a few hours later as they called on the Legislature to keep away from Cuomo's revamped Parental Choice in Education Act, which includes the credit and the aforementioned additions.

Even with sweeteners like the money for public school teachers to buy supplies, advocates still aren't impressed with the legislation. Strong Economy for All's Michael Kink called the credit a mashup of right-wing tax policy and standard Albany politics. The League of Women Voters' Barbara Bartoletti said fully funding the obligations of the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement and addressing child poverty would be better ways to address many education issues.

Even including the DREAM Act, a progressive agenda item that would open up higher education aid to undocumented immigrants, wouldn't be enough to make the tax credit palatable, the advocates said.

In this year's budget negotiation, Cuomo tried to yoke the EITC to the DREAM Act in the hope that both items could be massaged through the Legislature, where a Republican-led Senate opposes the DREAM Act and a Democratic Assembly opposes the EITC. In the end, both items fell off the table.

Cuomo called the DREAM Act a priority on Sunday, but he did not indicate if he would again try linking the two measures.

For all of the harsh rhetoric lobbed by both sides of the debate in recent months, the Cuomo administration is still trying to dispel the notion that the governor is maligning public schools.

"The governor wants us to be the best institution, the best system of education in the entire country," Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said after speaking at the state Democratic Committee's spring meeting in Albany. "It's important, and I think this us-against-them mentality is fabricated. It's not something that the governor believes in. He is a strong believer in giving parents choice, but it does not mean we're not fully behind the 85 percent of children in the state of New York who go to public schools."

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

Categories: State/Local

Lenders agree to deal with 'zombie properties'

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 05/23/2015 - 1:07am

ALBANY — New York is getting help from 11 major financial institutions in its fight against zombies — zombie properties, that is.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that the group of banks, credit unions and mortgage companies will take action to maintain properties that have been foreclosed upon. According to the governor's office, those practices include regularly inspecting and maintaining properties that fall into delinquency and reporting vacant and abandoned properties to the state Department of Financial Services, which will maintain a registry of such properties.

The governor's office said Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citi Mortgage, Ocwen, Nationstar, PHH, Green Tree Servicing, Astoria Bank, Bethpage Federal Credit Union, M&T Bank and Ridgewood Savings Bank all signed agreements.

The practices are set to be adopted by August.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is continuing to push his Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act through the Legislature. That legislation essentially would make the provisions within the new agreements state law.

— Matthew Hamilton

Categories: State/Local
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