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Term limits resurface as an issue

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 02/24/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

State Sen. George Amedore says 12 years of legislative service should be the limit.

The Rotterdam Republican has introduced a bill that would set term limits for all state legislators starting Jan. 1, 2017.

Members of the Senate and Assembly would be limited to six two-year terms.

A spokeswoman said that if passed, the statute would not be retroactive to lawmakers who began their careers before that date.

"It's nothing against a senator or assemblyperson who has been here a very long time, and has served their community and constituents well or done their civic duty," Amedore said. Nevertheless, "It's time that we institute reforms and changes that bring about, I think, a quality in our Legislature. We see constantly more investigations, more indictments — and some of these legislators who have been here for a very long time have, frankly, just been doing the status quo. We need to get New York heading in a right direction."

The bill is sponsored in the Assembly by Mark Johns, a Rochester-area Republican.

Amedore, a freshman senator who served in the Assembly from 2007 to 2012, has been pushing for term limits since he took office this year. He is co-sponsoring a Joe Griffo bill that would codify the Senate's eight-year limit for committee chairs and leadership positions into statute for both chambers.

He also is co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would increase legislative terms to four years and limit tenure to three terms.

That legislation is sponsored by Long Island Republican Phil Boyle.

Term-limit legislation has passed the Republican-led Senate in past years, but has failed to go anywhere in the Democratic Assembly.

Newly elected Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said last month that he isn't a fan of term limits — members, and by extension, voters should decide who their leaders are, he said.

Heastie did express willingness to discuss term limits in Assembly talks.

In the last legislative session alone, 15 bills were proposed in the Senate and Assembly that would have set up some kind of limits on legislative service.

Former state Sen. Greg Ball and Assemblyman Steve Katz sponsored one piece of legislation that would have limited legislators to eight years in office. An identical constitutional amendment to Boyle's was introduced by himself and by former Assemblywoman Annie Rabbitt.

State Sen. Tony Avella offered a different take: Legislators could serve three consecutive terms, or 12 years, whichever is longer. None of those proposals went anywhere.

Though most of the bills were proposed by members of the GOP, Democrats got in on the mix as well. Avella's proposals were made before he left the Senate Democrats to join the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, which is aligned with the Republicans. State Sen. Kevin Parker, a New York City Democrat, proposed a constitutional amendment that would have set a limit of three six-year Senate terms and four four-year Assembly terms.

In either case, legislators who left either chamber for a period would be eligible to reset the clock.

Former state Sen. Terry Gipson, a Hudson Valley Democrat, proposed four-year terms with no more than 16 total years served.

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

Categories: State/Local

Details expected on ethics reform

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 02/24/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 30-day amendments to his executive budget proposal, due Friday, will be of special interest.

Instead of the usual set of corrections and minor changes to the budget plan, this year will bring details about the five-point ethics plan that the governor has demanded to see included in the final budget package.

Cuomo is seeking stepped-up disclosure of outside income by lawmakers and more frequent reporting of political donations, as well as a constitutional amendment that would strip pensions from a larger group of officials convicted of official corruption, reform of the "per diem" system covering lawmakers' expenses and prohibitions on the personal use of campaign funds.

The governor announced his ultimatum a week and a half after former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on corruption charges. The arrest occurred the day after Cuomo laid out his complete agenda for 2015 — with scant discussion of ethics reform — in his Jan. 21 State of the State address.

While Cuomo has boasted of the state's four-year record of on-time budgets, he has said he's be willing to blow that deadline if lawmakers refuse to meet his ethics demands. After the start of the new fiscal year on April 1, state operations will depend on Cuomo sending the Legislature an "extender" bill — a take-it-or-leave-it measure that could include Cuomo's complete budget package.

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 02/24/2015 - 1:07am

Gibson decision, I-81 on 'New York Now'

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

WMHT's Matt Ryan talks to U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson about his decision to make this congressional term his last, and the possibility that he might seek statewide office in 2018.

Innovation Trail correspondent Jenna Flanagan looks at the future of I-81, the route that runs north-south through central New York.

TU State Editor Casey Seiler looks at the opaque nature of limited liability companies.

"New York Now" airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and 10:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday on WMHT Ch. 17.

Coast Guard aids barge stuck in Hudson ice

WEST POINT — Two U.S. Coast Guard cutters have helped an oil barge break free of thick ice on the Hudson River at West Point.

The Coast Guard's Staten Island station said it was notified around 3 a.m. Wednesday that the tugboat Maryland and the barge it was pushing were stuck in the ice near the U.S. Military Academy.

The cutters Line and Willow arrived by 10 a.m. and a commercial tug was brought in to assist. The cutters broke up ice while the commercial tug freed the Maryland and the barge, which was hauling nearly 27,000 barrels of home heating oil to Newburgh.

— Associated Press

Commissioners push back on vow to resign

JERSEY CITY, N.J. —Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey backpedaled Thursday on their original offer to resign, saying it would be unnecessary in light of their unanimous support of reform efforts at the agency.

Commissioners openly questioned the need to step down after they unanimously passed a resolution at their monthly board meeting in support of a special report that outlined an overhaul of the agency's operations. They said they would discuss whether to tender their resignations in a private executive meeting later in the day.

The reform efforts came in the wake of furor over politically motivated lane closures near the George Washington Bridge in 2013 orchestrated by aides appointed by Gov. Chris Christie. A study, commissioned by Christie, cleared him of any wrongdoing. The U.S. attorney's office is conducting a criminal investigation into the matter.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Housing Needs Deserve Spotlight In This Year's Budget

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 02/24/2015 - 12:00am

Gov. Cuomo speaking about his 2015 agenda (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

Existing programs are simply not sufficient to meet the demand for more affordable homes in New York State, in large part because they do not serve people across a wide range of incomes. Budget season is the perfect time to address this problem.

Strict income restrictions coupled with limited subsidy are obstacles to many families that apply for affordable homes. A recent New York Times article highlighted the challenges faced by many – people like Leigh Lumford, a Brooklyn resident who was rejected for an affordable apartment because she surpassed the income requirement by only $3,000 a year. Narrow income ranges make it nearly impossible for many families at the middle and very low end of the income spectrum to get the help they deserve.

However, there is a lot that New York State can do to help meet the housing needs of these individuals and families. The windfall from mortgage foreclosure and other settlements is an opportunity to make affordable housing programs work better for more New Yorkers. At NYSAFAH, we are calling for this year's budget to include a new $500 million fund to encourage the development of mixed-income housing. Mixed-income development serves a broader range of people and helps foster economic diversity, spur community revitalization, and create jobs.

Hardworking individuals shouldn't be forced into long commutes and less time with their families because of a shortage of affordable, middle-income housing. Teachers, firefighters and other professionals often find they can't afford to live in the communities where they work due to a shortage of quality rental housing plaguing towns throughout the state.

Proven programs, like the State Low Income Housing Tax Credit (SLIHC), encourage private investment in affordable housing projects. Today, there is more demand for SLIHC than credits available, which means some projects that would help middle-income families are never built. The State should increase funding for SLIHC by infusing $150 million into the program to help generate capital for mixed-income projects. Unlike federal programs, SLIHC supports housing for moderate- to middle-income households earning up to 90 percent AMI, and has helped build affordable homes in every corner of the state.

The Brownfield Tax Credit program is another important driver of affordable housing development, providing much-needed resources for the remediation of environmentally contaminated areas as well as credits to build affordable housing on remediated sites. Governor Cuomo has identified affordable housing as a priority use for the program, and its reauthorization this year is essential to continue transforming vacant lots into affordable homes for New York residents.

In addition to meeting the housing needs of low-, moderate- and middle-income New Yorkers, the Governor should be commended for establishing a NY/NY IV program to provide 5,000 units of permanent supportive housing for New York's homeless population. However, only a small fraction of those in need are ever placed in a supportive housing unit, even though supportive housing saves at least $10,000 per person per year. With approximately 80,000 homeless individuals throughout the state, NYSAFAH is calling for additional funding to develop and preserve 30,000 units of supportive housing over the next 10 years.

The growing demand for more affordable and supportive housing means communities, industry members, advocates, and lawmakers must come together to forge creative, new tools to get the job done. This year's budget and the funds from settlements are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to throw our support behind programs that make a real and measurable difference in the lives of New Yorkers.

***
Jolie Milstein is President & CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH), the largest trade association for the affordable housing industry statewide.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Tenant Protection Bill Appears Hostage in Women's Equality Standoff

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 02/24/2015 - 12:00am

Gov. Cuomo at a campaign stop (photo: @WomensEqParty)

A bill that would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants based on their source of income appears to have become a pawn in the Legislature's battle over Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Women's Equality Agenda.

The bill would update existing law that prevents landlords from discriminating against tenants based on race, sex, and other factors to include source of income.

The measure is designed to help tenants who pay for housing through public assistance, alimony, and child support. Sen. Daniel Squadron, who has sponsored the bill in the Senate since 2010, has focused specifically on how the bill would help disabled New Yorkers who receive assistance from Social Services Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income, and housing vouchers.

Gov. David Paterson vetoed the bill when it successfully passed both Democratically controlled houses of the Legislature in 2010. The Senate has failed to act on the legislation since then and this year the measure is tied up in the fight over the Women's Equality Act (WEA). The Republican controlled Senate voted on and passed individual planks of the WEA earlier this year, excluding the measure that codifies Roe v. Wade abortion protections into state law. Cuomo and the Democratically controlled Assembly refuse to pass elements of the WEA individually, insisting that it is all ten or none.

One of the WEA measures prohibits housing discrimination based on domestic violence status and creates a task force to study the impacts of source of income on housing.

"The good news is that this issue is one that folks on both sides of the aisle has expressed support for," said Squadron of the source of income protection. "The bad news is that the bill that came up for a vote this year only creates a study."

The Assembly has refused to vote on individual sections of the WEA in an attempt to force the Senate to consider the controversial abortion plank, but the results seems to be that the rent discrimination bill is not likely to come to a vote in the Senate any time soon.

Assembly Member Marcos Crespo sponsored the Assembly version of the housing discrimination bill last year. His office said that he was set to introduce the bill again this year, but offered no thoughts on the fate of the legislation.

"We really don't need a study to see there is a problem," said Michael McKee of Tenant's PAC. "It is so like government to commission a study, debate the study, and kick it on down the road."

The office of Republican Sen. Joseph Robach, who sponsored the Senate bill that creates a study on source of income discrimination, did not return calls for comment.

The City Council passed source of income discrimination legislation in 2008 only to have it vetoed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Council then overrode the veto.

In 2009, the Legal Aid Society launched a lawsuit against 30 landlords who turned away Section 8 vouchers from current tenants. Lawyers for the landlords argued the city law only applied to future tenants, but the courts found the law applied to current and future tenants. The Rent Stabilization Association (a deceptively named landlord group) has insisted in a number of statements over the years that landlords simply don't want to take part in Section 8 voucher systems because of bureaucratic delays, not because they want to discriminate against poor or black or Latino renters.

Judith Goldiner of The Legal Aid Society said that enforcement of the law was lax under the Bloomberg administration. "The Bloomberg administration was opposed to the legislation and we didn't see much action from the City's Human Rights Commission. But now that we have a new mayor we hope they will be much more aggressive on enforcement."

Goldiner said she believes the influence of the real estate industry's massive campaign donations has kept the State from adopting the law. "We have source of income legislation in the city, in other municipalities and multiple other states, and the world has not come to an end," she said.

Goldiner said that if the State does adopt protections against source of income discrimination, Legal Aid would not likely become involved in enforcement as it did in the city, however she noted that a number of organizations across the state could get involved. She hopes the law would enable tenants who receive government assistance "greater mobility" because they wouldn't have to be afraid of being rejected by landlords outside the city.

Tenant advocates insist that the issue has become more of a problem as communities become further gentrified and landlords look to push out low-income renters.

In August of last year Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reached settlements with a number of landlords and rental agencies for discriminating against renters with vouchers in both New York City and Buffalo. Buffalo is one of a few localities outside of the city that have source of income laws on the books.

"Discrimination comes in many forms, but denying a home to someone because they receive government assistance is one of the most insidious, having a disproportionate effect on black and Hispanic individuals," said Schneiderman at the time. "No one should be turned away from an apartment based on a lawful income source, and we will continue to fight to ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income."

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

Categories: State/Local

New York City Students Deserve the Whole Story on Sexual Health

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 02/24/2015 - 12:00am

(photo: dnj_Brian via flickr)

I never thought I could get HIV. From the little I learned about HIV in high school in Far Rockaway, Queens, I thought that anyone who has it looks really sick. At school, they only showed us photos of people who looked thin and like they were dying.

In November 2012, the unthinkable happened. I was diagnosed with HIV. My heart stopped, and all I could think about was death. How could my boyfriend have had HIV? He looked so healthy. Unfortunately, my school didn't teach us the whole story about HIV - or about anything involving sexual health for that matter.

I didn't even learn about using condoms or tips for negotiating condom use with a partner. And we only learned about straight sex and didn't learn anything about LGBTQ health and sexuality. I began to feel attracted to boys at a young age, but since straight relationships were the only ones discussed in school, I felt like my feelings were not counted. I also didn't connect with the small amount of information I received about HIV since in school they only focused on straight relationships. If I had learned more, maybe I would not be HIV-positive today.

Unfortunately, many schools across New York City are still failing students when it comes to sex education. The City requires a semester of sex ed in middle school and one in high school, but that's not enough, and a lot of students still aren't receiving even that minimum amount. Connect 2 Protect (C2P) Bronx Coalition recently conducted a survey of high school students in the Bronx, and just 37 percent of them said that at school they had learned communication skills when it comes to sex. Only 47 percent had learned about condom negotiation. And only 26 percent learned about support for LGBTQ students.

This is unacceptable. If more students learned skills such as condom negotiation or protecting themselves from sexually transmitted infections, young people in New York City would be healthier. It's also important that young people learn about healthy relationships and consent. Sex ed should be comprehensive, and it should start early, in elementary school, with content that's appropriate for younger kids, and then continue through high school.

It's so important that young people learn about sexual health and relationships at school, because many kids aren't learning about this at home. My family never talked about sex, so I never brought it up with them. Plus, when I came out to my family in 10th grade, it was clear that my parents didn't want to accept that I'm gay. So I never brought up sexuality or sex again. There are many young people who can't safely or comfortably talk to their families about sex for a variety of reasons. Even if kids do learn about sex at home, it's important that it's reinforced with accurate sex ed in school.

I feel like society failed me by not making sure that every student receives honest, accurate information on sexual health and preventing sexually transmitted infections and HIV. It hurts to know that there are still young people like me in schools across the city who are not getting the information they need to protect themselves and make healthy decisions.

I talk to my friends to share the real facts about HIV. I make it clear that someone doesn't have to look sick to have HIV. In fact, HIV often has few or no symptoms for up to 10 years or more before symptoms develop. I also tell people how HIV is not spread. People who have HIV are still discriminated against, because many people still don't know the facts about HIV.

New York City schools must do more to educate students about sexual health. Every young person in the city has a right to know how to protect themselves from HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies. They also deserve to learn about consent and what constitutes a healthy relationship. Improving sex ed in city schools must be a priority, and there's no time to waste.

***
by Ernesto

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

State missed Medicaid rebates

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 02/23/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

A new audit from Comptroller Tom DiNapoli concludes that the state Department of Health failed to collect almost $120 million in available rebates over a 33-month period ending last June.

The audit blames the missed savings on payments to prescription drug makers for the Medicaid program on "ineffective policies and processes."

During the same period, DOH collected an estimated $3.6 billion in rebates.

According to the audit, more than half of the missed savings ($69 million) was blamed on the failure of Medicaid managed care organizations to resubmit about 1 million claims that were rejected as deficient by the agency's processing system, eMedNY.

Another $50.3 million in lost rebates were blamed on "policies and procedures on rebates for physician-administered drugs" that undermined the agency's ability to collect.

In their response to the audit, DOH officials said they have already taken actions to improve the rebate collection process, and took issue with the suggestion that the state had "missed out" on the rebates, which "gives the impression that the Department has permanently lost out on rebates."

" ... (T)he Department is able to retroactively recover rebates," DOH noted, adding that the department is slated to pull in an estimated $9.7 million by the end of this month, which is also the deadline for a more comprehensive agency review of potential recoveries of rebates going back to 2010.

The federal Afforable Care Act expanded the two-decade-old rebate system.

"The numbers reflected in the audit are outdated," DOH spokeswoman Monica Mahaffey said in an email.

"To date, DOH has collected 60 percent of these rebates and will be recouping the additional 40 percent by the end of the coming fiscal year, as has been detailed in the Executive Budget.

"During the last three years, DOH has collected more than $5.5 billion in pharmacy rebates," Mahaffey said, "and has additionally saved more than $400 million from transitioning pharmacy benefits from fee-for-service to managed care."

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Reid out of part-time job with assemblyman

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 02/23/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin's staff no longer includes Rensselaer County Legislature Chairman Martin Reid, who's embroiled in a scandal over his improper collection of unemployment benefits.

Reid began working as a part-time legislative assistant for McLaughlin in July, and left the payroll Jan. 28. State records showed Reid was making a biweekly sum of $486.20, with his workplace listed as the lawmaker's Troy district office.

In a brief interview, McLaughlin said Reid's "assignment ended," and declined to comment further. Reid had no comment.

A state administrative law judge's concluded that Reid "willfully and intentionally misrepresented the facts" when he collected more than $15,000 in state unemployment benefits in 2013 while being paid $30,000 a year for his county work. While the judge's decision was never made public, it was reported last month by the Times Union.

The state Labor Department last fall turned over copies of the judge's ruling and other records in the case to the Rensselaer County district attorney's office for review as a potential criminal case.

Joel Abelove, a Republican elected as district attorney in November, claimed last week that his office hasn't received a referral in the case, which the previous Democratic administration took no action on.

Reid applied for unemployment compensation after February 2013, when he was forced out of his $73,000-a-year job as deputy director of governmental relations for the state School Boards Association.

A county legislator for two decades, Reid has said he repaid the improper unemployment benefit and paid a civil fine.

McLaughlin has been harshly critical of the ethical lapses of Democratic lawmakers, including former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

"The standard of acceptable behavior should be more than 'he hasn't been convicted' for Assembly Dems," McLaughlin said on Twitter on Jan. 22, the day Silver was arrested in Manhattan to face a federal corruption complaint.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Eyeing Health Care Obligations, Garodnick Calls for More Responsible Budgeting

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 02/23/2015 - 12:00am

Council Member Garodnick at Monday's press conference (photo: @DanGarodnick)

New York City Council Member Dan Garodnick is proposing charter reforms of the City's budgeting process to fund health care obligations to retirees.

Accompanied on the steps of City Hall by city council colleagues and representatives from the Citizens Budget Commission and Citizens Union, Garodnick announced legislation that would assign funds from the annual City budget to the Retiree Health Benefits Trust, which was established in 2006 to meet long-term health care needs for City employees.

The Trust holds just $2.4 billion, 2.5 percent of the City's overall health care obligations, which stand at $92.5 billion. "It doesn't come due all at once for sure, but it does come due," said Garodnick of the massive sum.

Under the new proposal, the City would have an annual obligation to deposit 5 percent of the value of the year's estimated costs of health care for retirees. In 2014, the cost of retiree health care benefits was $2.1 billion. If in place, the proposal would therefore have required the City to place at least $105 million into the trust. "$105 million is a spit in the bucket relative to our obligations but it will grow over time and it is an important reminder to budget makers that this fund needs to go in one direction, up," Garodnick said at Monday's press conference. "And of course this is a floor, not a ceiling, we can always put in more."

In 2006 and 2007, a total of $2.5 billion was deposited in the Trust. Since then, funds were intermittently withdrawn to help with budget deficits over the years as the recession set in. Another $864 million was put in the fund last year, according to Garodnick's office. "This trust fund has since its creation been used essentially as a rainy day fund," Garodnick told Gotham Gazette. "You put some money in when you have it, you take it out when you need it. That's how it was used, that's how it was anticipated in past budgets."

That approach, Garodnick and others argue, is leaving the City and its retirees on shaky ground. Putting funds into the Trust each year could prevent tax increases, radical service cuts or layoffs in central services. Mayor Bill de Blasio's recently unveiled preliminary budget plan for fiscal year 2016 (which begins July 1, 2015) does not withdraw from the Trust, but it does not add any funds either.

"The thing with trust funds is, if you don't put in the funds there is no reason for any trust," Garodnick said.

Civic watchdogs approve of the proposal, formal legislation for which is currently being drafted and will eventually be put to a public ballot referendum if it passes through the City Council.

"This proposal allows the fund to grow in a steady, predictable way and limits any unnecessary withdrawals," said Maria Doulis, Director of City Studies at the Citizens Budget Commission. Doulis stressed that New York City's $92.5 billion health care liability is higher than those of all other state and local governments except California's.

Dick Dadey, Executive Director of good government group Citizens Union, said the proposal is an important step in honoring the City's commitment to employees and retirees. "Citizens Union sees this as good planning, responsible budgeting, and good government," he said.

Garodnick co-sponsored the bill that created the Trust in 2006. But the initial legislation did not establish firm rules to safeguard the funds. Now, health care costs have risen nearly 75 percent to $2.3 billion from $1.2 billion when the Trust was first created, according to Garodnick, and it's necessary to "put some guardrails up here to protect this money because our obligations are clearly growing and our liabilities are enormous - and that's why we're making this proposal today to ensure this fund is going in one direction."

The proposal does ensure that in times when City revenues are less robust, deposits to the fund could be reduced or eliminated. Specifically, if tax revenues only increase between zero and two percent, the required contribution to the fund would be halved, while no contribution would be required if revenues decrease.

The final protection the legislation will put in place would limit access to the fund, except in times of financial emergencies, to prevent layoffs and budget cuts, or when health care costs spike unexpectedly. The proposal would be designed to allow for "rigidity, but not complete inflexibility," Garodnick told reporters.

Council Members Rosie Mendez and Ben Kallos were on hand Monday to support Garodnick's proposal. "There's a reason we're out here in the cold today - because we don't want, in the future, New York City retirees to be left out in the cold," said Mendez.

"Fiscal responsibility means setting aside funding for our health benefits when they accrue," Kallos said. "We can't leave a $92 billion health obligation debt to the next generation."

Other Council members have also pledged their support, according to a press release from Garodnick's office. They include Costa Constantinides, Rafael Espinal, Karen Koslowitz, James Vacca, and Mark Weprin. As Garodnick's bill is written in full and introduced to the Council, he will surely be looking to add supporters and sponsors.

On Monday, Garodnick concluded his comments by emphasizing the importance of acting sooner rather than later: "President Roosevelt said, 'Too often in recent history, liberal governments have been wrecked on the rocks of loose fiscal policy.' I am part of this liberal government and while the rocks may be a little way before us, they grow closer and larger every year."

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

Categories: State/Local

As De Blasio Heads to Albany, Policy Rifts with Cuomo are Clear

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 02/23/2015 - 12:00am

Mayor and Governor (photo: Bryan Thomas/Getty)

During his 2016 preliminary budget presentation, Mayor Bill de Blasio moved from his usual stance of appeasement when it comes to his up-and-down relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and called out the State on funding the MTA and education, though he did not mention the governor by name.

The two like to say they are close, longtime friends; though if you watch carefully you might ask if a friendship means one party consistently insists on bullying, one-upping, and overruling the other. Despite being publically tormented by Cuomo, de Blasio has remained calm and subordinate when talking about the City's relationship with the State - an approach that appears to be mostly working to the benefit of de Blasio's agenda and is about all the mayor can do given that he is largely at the mercy of the more powerful governor.

But, de Blasio could, of course, take a more combative stance and his style may be changing at least ever-so slightly. With a trip to Albany for a public budget hearing upcoming on Wednesday, Feb. 25, we'll soon see what tack the mayor takes in his second run through the Albany gauntlet.

Competition and bad feelings between New York's governor and New York City's mayor have been the rule for much of modern history, but the relationship between Cuomo and de Blasio has brought an entirely new dynamic of rivalry as the two concoct and perform an often mysterious blend of closeness and distance.

In the second year of this new phase of their relationship that began with de Blasio's election as mayor, the pair are set to do battle on a number of policy issues, including education, the minimum wage, and affordable housing.

At de Blasio's upcoming testimony at a state Legislature joint budget hearing, some observers say they expect the mayor to firmly outline his differences with the governor - much more decisively and publicly than he has before. Last year, de Blasio went to Albany and almost exclusively talked up the city's need for pre-kindergarten funding. This year, the discussion is likely to be much wider ranging. Already, the cracks between the pair's policy agendas have started to show.

Confidants to each man insist they have been close friends dating back to when de Blasio worked under Cuomo at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the 1990s, and later on Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign. And yet, last year when Democrats were celebrating de Blasio's win and hoping the pair would work together on progressive issues, Cuomo's staffers were downplaying de Blasio's election and insisting the Mayor of New York City has traditionally had an "outsize" role in policy discussion.

Then came actual policy clashes: Cuomo big-brothered de Blasio on charter schools, forcing the city to provide charter schools with rent-free school space; the governor tried to coopt de Blasio's universal pre-kindergarten plan, denying the tax increase de Blasio pushed for and instead funding pre-K around the state; when de Blasio urged calm during the Ebola scare, Cuomo went the opposite direction, partnering with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to announce a mandatory quarantine for travelers arriving from Africa who may have had contact with Ebola-infected patients.

Most recently, Cuomo went over de Blasio's head during the late-January blizzard that mostly missed the city by shutting down subway and bus service. The Cuomo administration reportedly only gave de Blasio 15 to 30 minutes warning.

De Blasio has typically remained full of praise for Cuomo, avoiding admitting publicly to any real disagreements. The mayor kept his poise after Cuomo's last two State of the State addresses, downplaying to the press the fact that some of Cuomo's positions seemed directly at odds with what de Blasio wanted for the city. Cuomo has not done the same for de Blasio. This year Cuomo's office quickly issued releases attacking the mayor's plans on the minimum wage and affordable housing as outlined in de Blasio's State of the City. In his speech, de Blasio did call for a more progressive increase to the wage than Cuomo's newly minted plan had included, attempting to pass the governor on the left as he himself was accelerating.

The minimum wage - proper rates and control over New York City's - is a key point of policy disagreement among several that are likely to take center stage in the pair's 2015 struggle for power. We look at the top five heading into the intense months of budget negotiations ahead:

Minimum Wage
Last spring, in a deal for its endorsement, Cuomo promised the Working Families Party that he would support raising the state's minimum wage to $10.10 in 2015 and allow the city to raise its minimum wage up to 30 percent higher. The Governor appeared to break that promise in January.

In the lead up to his State of the State, the governor instead proposed raising the state's minimum wage to $10.50 and the city's to $11.50 at the end of 2016.

De Blasio countered in his State of the City by proposing a $13 minimum wage for the city with indexing for inflation that would increase the wage to $15 by 2019. "The current minimum wage proposal simply doesn't do enough to help New York City," de Blasio said without naming the governor. "That's why we will fight to raise New York City's minimum wage to more than $13 per hour next year."

Cuomo's office issued a statement calling the proposal a "non-starter" with the Legislature, implying that while he may be in favor of bigger numbers, the Republican-controlled State Senate would never go for it.

In her State of the City, given on Feb. 11, New York City Council Speaker (and close ally of de Blasio) Melissa Mark-Viverito promised to go to Albany to fight for home rule on the minimum wage.

Affordable Housing
De Blasio focused almost exclusively on the creation of more affordable housing in his second State of the City, given on Feb. 3. One key to the plan is the redevelopment of Sunnyside Yards, in Queens, where he wants to build over 11,000 units of affordable housing.

Cuomo's office quickly tried to put the kibosh on that idea, saying in a statement: "The M.T.A. uses Sunnyside Yards as an important facility for our transportation system, and it is not available for any other use in the near term. The State and the M.T.A. are studying several potential future uses of the site from a long term planning perspective."

De Blasio has remained steadfast on the idea. He told WNYC's Brian Lehrer that he felt a deal with the state is possible.

"If they have other things they think are a priority on that site, there's plenty of room on that site," de Blasio said the day after his speech. "Two hundred acres is an extraordinary amount of room."

Cuomo told NY1 that the state needs the land for a train yard and that developing over it would be a "very expensive form of construction."

Charter Schools
Cuomo announced in his wide-ranging education reform plan that he wants to increase the state's charter school cap. "The current charter cap is 460. There are 159 slots left. Only 24 available are left for charter schools in New York City," said Cuomo. "We want to add another 100 to the cap and allow the cap to be statewide and to eliminate any artificial limits on where charter schools can open."

De Blasio declined to detail most of his disagreements with Cuomo after the governor's speech, which he attended, but he acknowledged to reporters that the charter cap proposal was a disappointment. "I think the cap we have now is sufficient," he said about an hour after Cuomo spoke. "I want to certainly work with charter schools in New York City, but as I've said many times, the key to improving education in New York City and throughout the state is to do a much better job at traditional public school education. That's where my focus is first and foremost and that's where I think we need to keep our focus as a state if we're really going to turn the corner on education. So I think the cap we have now is sufficient."

De Blasio is likely to quietly aid teachers unions in their fight against Cuomo's plans to change the cap and to tie a new teacher evaluation system and other reforms to increased education funding. De Blasio and the unions will lean heavily on new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in these negotiations and those on other topics on which the governor and many New York City Democrats disagree.

MTA Funding
De Blasio was less shy in his evaluation of the State's funding for the MTA. While releasing his budget plan on Feb. 9, de Blasio faulted the State for not addressing the MTA's $15.2 capital shortfall. "The State has not put forward a plan to address that yet, nor has the State met its obligation in terms of some of the other infrastructure – roads and bridges – that are obviously aging," he said.

Cuomo has downplayed the deficit, and insisted that the $15.2 billion figure is just part and parcel of the MTA overstating its need to bring in more state funding.

Advocates insist both the City and State need to increase funding of the agency. Cuomo has a history of proposing budgets that take cash out of MTA's transit funding to pay off MTA bonds. Those bonds were originally taken out by the state with the promise that they would be paid for with state funds.

This year, Cuomo's budget would take $12.5 million from the MTA transit allotment and put it toward it's capital budget.

Advocates note that the city's contributions to the MTA capital budget have steeply declined over the last 25 years.

Education Funding
In another sign that the mayor is perhaps becoming a bit braver in his relationship with Cuomo, he questioned the State's commitment to education funding and brought up the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that has been a rallying cry for Cuomo's opponents in public education.

"But even more distinct is the issue of the education funding, which under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity agreement, several years ago – there was a clear agreement that the State was going to fund New York City schools in an equitable manner, given our percentage of the state's school population, and the needs of this city," said de Blasio. "Other major cities in the state were going to benefit too. So, let's look at what happened in Fiscal '08 – this obligation was met. So there was an agreement struck, Governor Spitzer and the Legislature met the agreement, and then, as the economy worsened, there was a trend away from fulfilling the obligation under CFE."

De Blasio went on to say that the State has recovered from the recession and can afford to meet the obligations of the CFE lawsuit. "It's time to have a serious discussion, again, about the state's ongoing obligation to this city, and other cities around the state, in terms of the CFE agreement," he said.

Cuomo basically mocked the CFE in his budget presentation and insisted that the state's education system is hampered by failing teachers and greedy school boards. "The education industry's cry that more money will solve the problem is false. Money without reform only grows the bureaucracy," said Cuomo. "It does not improve performance. The state average per student is $8,000. The state average in a high-needs district is $12,000. A failing district like Buffalo, which has been a failing district for many, many years, the state spends $16,000 per student. So don't tell me that if we only had more money, it would change. We have been putting more money into this system every year for a decade and it hasn't changed."

However, Cuomo dangled a $1.1 billion boost in education spending if legislators agree to his education reform plan that includes revamping teacher tenure and evaluations, and raising the charter cap. We'll soon know how de Blasio and his closest allies are responding to the governor's offer.

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

Categories: State/Local

Throughout 2nd Avenue Subway Build, Local Businesses See Fewer Customers, No Aid

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 02/23/2015 - 12:00am

The new 2nd Ave subway tunnel in early February, 2015 (photo: William Alatriste)

With the first phase of the 2nd Avenue subway line set to be completed by December 2016, construction-weary business owners and residents are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even through the drilling smoke and fences that have become ubiquitous on the Upper East Side. Even so, the damage of a process that is approaching its eighth anniversary has left the surrounding area worse for wear, with businesses leaving in droves and residents finding the essence of their neighborhood completely disrupted.

And it's just the first section, from 63rd Street to 96th Street, of the new line aimed at increasing transportation options and reducing overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines.

The process has left local businesses suffering the adverse effects. Almost half of the businesses between 68th Street and 95th Street that saw the beginning of the 2nd Avenue construction have moved or closed within the last 5 years due to declining revenues, according to the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce (MCC). Of the 441 storefronts that are currently situated on the Upper East Side stretch, 242 have been operating there since 2009, MCC says.

The Chamber has kept a steady record of declining foot traffic on 2nd Avenue since the commencement of the subway project, in April of 2007. MCC President Nancy Ploeger said the biggest disappointment to come from the past eight years has been the lack of tax credit for business owners.

"We would have hoped there would be more support for these businesses during a ten-year project," Ploeger said. "It wasn't an eight-month project, it was ten years."

The general consensus among businesses owners on 2nd Avenue that spoke with Gotham Gazette is that the current construction obstructs everything in the area. Most businesses have taken a hit from the lack of walk-in customers, people simply no longer walk down 2nd Avenue unless it's absolutely necessary. "In the time since the construction, our delivery business has continued to improve, while our dine-in business has stayed flat or fallen," said Danny Marquez, the ten-year manager of Nick's Restaurant and Pizzeria on 94th Street. "We may have experienced improvement in both areas were it not for the construction."

Chris Tripoulas, four-year manager of Dorrian's Red Hand on 84th Street, said that business has dramatically decreased, estimating about a 50% loss overall, possibly even more in daytime business during construction hours. "They haven't done anything to help us out," Tripoulas said of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's involvement with businesses on 2nd Avenue. Tripoulas, like Ploeger, expressed disappointment over the lack of tax credit for businesses in the construction zone. "A lot of the time people don't even think we're open, because [the construction] is covering us up," he said.

While business representatives are frustrated about the lack of communication and financial support coming from state officials, Ploeger did commend the MTA and the City's efforts to minimize disruption to the community. She said that those efforts have included inspecting buildings to prevent risks to above-ground structures, changing demolition times to accommodate business hours and residential noise complaints, offering tours of the underground progress to community members, attempting to construct safe walkways and sidewalks, and keeping the community updated through information centers and task force meetings.

On Wednesday, Feb. 25, the MTA will hold a public workshop where members of the community can hear updates and share concerns about the construction with project representatives.

The 2nd Avenue subway line has been a particularly problematic project for decades. It was discussed since the early 1920s, and construction even attempted in 1942 and 1954, but thwarted by City Planner Robert Moses, who used the project funds on bridges instead. Though the City had the money to commence construction in the '80s and '90s, the MTA was more focused on repairs to existing lines. Now, an idea that was on the backburner for nearly 90 years is set to show real progress by the end of next year.

When completed, the project will provide much-needed connectivity to a part of Manhattan underserved by public transit. As of now, East Siders must take buses or walk to the Lexington Avenue 4, 5, and 6 lines, which are not only a distance for many, but also already overcrowded. Council Member Ben Kallos, whose East Side district has been significantly affected by the subway construction, feels businesses need more than just easy access. "While the Second Avenue Subway will be beneficial to our residents, construction has been disruptive in our community, affecting small businesses and residents alike," he said. "Many small businesses have closed, and those that have stayed open have seen up to a 30 percent decline in revenues." Kallos proposed an idea for providing financial relief to these businesses through city grants, but his proposal has not seen movement.

The good news is that construction activities have reduced as underground sections have been completed. But more full remedies can only come with the end of the first phase, says State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the East Side. "We have two more years of disruption to our community, to people in the area, and businesses, which is disturbing, but this isn't new," she said. "The answer is to get [the MTA] to get done as soon as possible."

The problems may simply be moving uptown, though. The second phase of the project will extend from 96th Street, connecting with the 4, 5, and 6 trains and Metro North at 125th Street. The MTA included $1.5 billion for the project in its tentative 2015-2019 capital plan, but this phase still holds many questions as the MTA deals with a massive funding gap and that amount is nowhere near what's needed to complete phase two. There is also no indication that the MTA plans to do anything differently when it comes to supporting businesses in the construction zone.

The $4.451 billion first phase is on time and on budget according to MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz. This, he says, is despite early issues in building a new subway line in what is essentially one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the country. "We're over 70% done in terms of the project, and we've turned a corner," said Ortiz. "Right now residents are really looking forward to being able to utilize a brand new subway line that will go a long way toward alleviating the crowding that we see on the Lexington line, and that's going to be a boon to businesses moving forward."

MCC's Ploeger is among those looking forward. "We're on the upside of this," she said, "and we're very excited about everything that's going to happen on 2nd Avenue."

***
by Shannon Ho, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Two photos within article also by Shannon Ho.

Categories: State/Local
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