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Drafts on Scaffold sought

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 08/26/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

The Center for Popular Democracy, a labor-backed advocacy group that supports New York's controversial Scaffold Law, wants to see all the drafts of a controversial report authored by SUNY's Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and paid for by the Lawsuit Reform Alliance, a business-backed organization that opposes Scaffold Law.

The Alliance paid almost $83,000 for the Institute's analysis of the law's economic impacts. That report, made public in February, has been the subject of fierce debate — over both the details of the study as well as larger issues of academic integrity. The Rockefeller Institute, which insists its work was done with independence and integrity, subsequently backed away from the most controversial chapter of the report, which included a statistical analysis that concluded gravity-related accidents fell in Illinois after the state ditched its version.

The law, which places "absolute liability" on employers for gravity-related workplace injuries, is supported by labor unions but opposed by business groups that claim it needlessly drives up construction costs. Opponents would like to see New York follow other states by adopting a "comparative negligence" standard that would make workers proportionately responsible when their actions contribute to an accident.

An initial Freedom of Information Law request from the Center for Popular Democracy resulted in SUNY's release of email communications between Rockefeller Institute researchers and Tom Stebbins of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance — contact that was required by the contract for the report.

On appeal, SUNY released an initial draft copy of the report that had been attached to one of those emails. The Times Union last week offered a side-by-side comparison of the draft and final versions. Changes between the two tended to increase the report's toll of the cost and impact of the law, though the researchers argue those edits represented good-faith efforts to seek the best data. The Center is now requesting to see all interim drafts of the report submitted to the Lawsuit Reform Alliance for review. "Given that the anti-worker groups behind this debunked report are still trying to use its flawed findings to weaken New York's safety laws, SUNY should release all of the drafts that we know exist," said Josie Duffy, a policy advocate with the group.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Teachout still on ballot, but numbers are low

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 08/26/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Game on — again.

An appeals court ruled Wednesday that Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout can remain on the Democratic primary ballot for governor, upholding a lower court's decision to toss Gov. Andrew Cuomo's challenge to her candidacy.

The governor's camp contended that Teachout did not meet the minimum five-year residency requirement, but the appeals court agreed that Cuomo's lawyers failed to prove their case.

"Today's unanimous decision by the appellate court comes as no surprise," said Teachout, who declared "game on" after her first court victory. "With this frivolous lawsuit behind us, I'm hopeful the governor will now agree to debate. We have very different visions for where we want to take the state. ... Democratic Primary voters deserve a choice."

A Cuomo campaign spokesman declined to comment.

Cuomo has rarely lost in recent years when he has flexed his political muscles. But Wednesday's ruling may not be much more than a psychological blow: According to recent polls, Teachout is known by few voters, Democrats as well as Republicans, and many Capitol watchers say that while she might be able to bruise the governor by reducing his margin of victory in the Sept. 9 contest, she faces insurmountable odds of winning.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed that 88 percent of registered voters haven't heard enough about Teachout to have an opinion of her. Among those who have heard enough, just 6 percent view her favorably. The numbers are similar to those in other recent polls, which have not shown her with name recognition any better than 22 percent.

"She's got the potential — not to beat him, not to even come close, but to embarrass him," said Mickey Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, in a radio interview Wednesday morning prior to the court's ruling. "I would suggest that Cuomo in pushing to legally get her off the ballot, he's doing exactly what he ought to be doing — ram her if he can. Because she can embarrass him."

Teachout has tried to spin her low recognition by playing up her team's projections that voter turnout for the Democratic primary will be similarly low.

"Let's take a look at the numbers: turnout in the Democratic primary is going to be somewhere around 15 percent, and already 15 percent of Democrats know who we are," Teachout campaign manager Mike Boland said in a statement. "Most of the people who know us are voting for us."

Still, most people know Cuomo and appear poised to vote for him — despite declining numbers among voters knowledgeable about the scandal surrounding his defunct Moreland Commission on public corruption, and his office's alleged meddling in its work. Cuomo continues to lead Republican challenger Rob Astorino by 28 points, and 55 percent of voters view him favorably, according to the new Quinnipiac poll.

The Moreland mess has moved the needle, though, with only 39 percent of respondents saying they approve of the way Cuomo has handled ethics in government — down from 48 percent in May. This marks the first time that more voters (50 percent) disapprove of the way he has handled ethics than approve of his policies.

While only 51 percent of voters say they've heard about Cuomo's decision to end the panel, they view the decision with a cynical eye: Only 11 percent said the decision was based on good government; 77 percent said it was a political deal with legislative leaders.

There are still nearly three weeks until primary day, and plenty of time for more Moreland headlines to be made by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is investigating the Moreland Commission's work, and the factors that led to its demise.

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

Categories: State/Local

Online course rule for lobbyists nears

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 08/26/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Before long, registered lobbyists in New York will have to take a mandated online ethics training course through the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

While the training requirement was laid out in the 2011 law that created JCOPE, which oversees lobbying and government ethics in the state, it hasn't been set up yet. JCOPE commissioners at recent meetings have been told that the training is being developed and should soon be completed.

The training, which would apply to the thousands of New Yorkers registered as lobbyists, was cautiously welcomed by Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the state League of Women Voters.

"It will be interesting for those of us who have wanted authentic lobbying reform to see how deep they will go," said Bartoletti — herself a registered lobbyist. "On the face of it, it would appear that any amount of ethics training in the State of New York is a good thing.''

Mass training programs can have their pitfalls. JCOPE's predecessor agency, the Commission on Public Integrity, drew scorn and ridicule in 2009 when the Times Union reported that no one who had taken online ethics training for state employees had failed the final exam. All scores were upgraded after a computer glitch initially gave a failing grade to everyone who turned in a less-than-perfect score.

The number of people who took that test was nominal (only 109 of the 136,500 state workers took part) and the exam wasn't mandatory.

The 2011 law that created JCOPE, though, has mandated ethics training for state agency, executive and legislative employees.

The language calling for lobbyist training had no deadline for implementation.

Another deadline, calling on the governor and legislative leaders to name a panel to review JCOPE's work thus far, has come and gone with no apparent action.

The legislation creating JCOPE called for the elected officials to appoint an eight-member review panel to "study, review and evaluate" the performance of the commission. The review panel was to be named by June 1, and is supposed to issue a report in 2015.

Spokesmen for legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn't respond immediately to requests for comment on Wednesday.

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

Categories: State/Local

As Deadlines Loom, Criticism Mounts for PayPhone Wi-Fi Plan

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 08/26/2014 - 1:00am

Wi-Fi is coming to all NYC payphones, date: TBD (photo: digitalsignageuniverse.typepad.com)

The idea of turning New York City payphones into Wi-Fi hotspots seems to be generally well received by the public, members of which look forward to more free Wi-Fi access in all five boroughs. But as the City gets closer to deciding which company will be awarded the franchise to provide that service, questions regarding the process are quietly beginning to bubble to the surface.

On August 13, Public Advocate Letitia James became the latest elected official to pen a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio recommending he review the RFP process. City Council Member James Vacca, who chairs the council technology committee, submitted his own letter on August 1 and Council Member Mark Weprin submitted a letter signed by 24 of his fellow council members on July 29 (an additional four council members later signed on, bringing the total to 28).

These elected officials claim that by only picking one winning bidder for the franchise, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), the agency tasked with issuing the RFP and awarding the contract, is creating a telecommunications monopoly. DoITT argues it is not a monopoly because it is a non-exclusive contract. Companies can team up in their bid and the City has the right to add an additional franchisee at any point.

In addition, electeds claim that the de Blasio administration circumvented the Council by not going to them for a new authorizing resolution (AR), something required of all franchise agreements. DoITT has met this criteria by choosing to use two existing ARs instead of going to the Council for a new one. The electeds argue the existing ARs don't allow for monopolies, something DoITT claims is not being allowed.

"The de Blasio Administration is committed to equitably expanding access to free WiFi, and this RFP allows us to do so by inviting innovative proposals to replace largely unused, old payphone infrastructure with new public communications structures," Nicholas Sbordone, a spokesman for DoITT, said by email. "We look forward to our continued collaboration with the Council to expand free broadband to New Yorkers all across the five boroughs."

DoITT argues it is technically playing within the law, although it remains to be seen if its interpretation of the laws will hold up in court if they are sued by a non-winning bidder. The City took a calculated risk in choosing to use existing ARs. If the gamble fails, it could push the start date for this groundbreaking project months, possibly years down the road.

The two existing ARs used in the RFP are AR 2309 of 2009 which covers the payphone franchises and AR 191 of 2010 which cover wireless franchises. When the Council approves ARs, it approves them for five years. The payphone AR will expire on December 21 of this year.

This date is of significance because the City must select a winner, negotiate the contract, and get the Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) to sign off on the deal before Dec 21. If it doesn't, the contract will fail to meet the legal requirements of having an AR and be null and void.

At that point, the City would have to go back to the Council to get a new AR, which could be a time consuming process. That new ask would allow the Council opportunity to press for stronger language that would prevent just one winner from being selected. The City would open itself up to scrutiny over using the term "non-exclusive" in the AR: the elected officials who wrote the recent letters argue that selecting one winner breaks the "non-exclusive" clause. The Council could potentially tie up the AR for months over that term and its application.

There is no indication that the City won't meet the deadline, but legal action could make it a closer call than it hopes.

Weprin, who has been an outspoken critic of the potential for a monopoly resulting from this RFP, says the use of existing ARs should be examined because it was not the original intent of of those council members who signed the legislation.

"We gave enabling legislation before we knew it was going to be a monopoly and one company being selected," Weprin said in a recent phone interview. "We feel like now that they have gone down this route, they should come back to us again."

At the time the AR was voted on in 2009 there were more than 10 payphone service providers and no indication that the City would move to choose only one provider for the Wi-Fi overhaul. But with time still left on the AR, the City has the right to use it.

City officials defended their decision to use existing ARs, noting DoITT staff met with council staff in June 2013 and met with Council Members Weprin and Vacca prior to the release of the RFP in April 2014. At both meetings, the plan to use two existing ARs was brought up. Both Vacca and Weprin lent their support in the press release that was sent out when the RFP was issued on May 1.

The City is eyeing another deadline, too, although it has a little more wiggle room. On October 15, the current franchise agreement will run out. There is a holdover provision which will allow for companies who currently run payphones to keep them and continue operating them with no changes until a new franchisee has been selected.

Once a new franchise has been selected, the old companies can chose to remove their equipment or can sell to the winning bidder. The price is supposed to be negotiated, but some in the industry fear they will be forced to sell for pennies on the dollar and given no choice.

It doesn't appear the Council has much room for legislative recourse at this point, but that would certainly not prevent any backdoor lobbying to get the City to select more than one winning franchise. When asked about the letters her members sent to the mayor, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who did not sign on to Weprin's letter, said she was aware of the issue but had not had a formal conversation with anyone yet.

"Whatever concerns members have will be concerns I have as well," Mark-Viverito said at a recent press conference. "But we will look into that further."

***
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette
@MeriwetherK

Categories: State/Local

Veteran Democrats Avella, Liu Vie for Senate Seat, Party Soul

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 08/26/2014 - 1:00am

John Liu campaigns for State Senate (photo: Uli Seit/NY Times)

Queens voters may be appropriately impressed by the political portfolios of the two candidates squaring off in the Democratic Primary in the 11th State Senate District - incumbent Sen. Tony Avella and former Comptroller John Liu have taken similar career paths in lives dedicated to civil service.

However, several state legislators are somewhat less impressed and say they aren't exactly excited about working with either one.

A number of Senate Democrats want to see Avella punished because of his abrupt exit from the party's legislative conference. They have labeled him a complainer who relied on others to push his legislation.

Several say they aren't thrilled about the prospect of a Liu victory because of the potential baggage left over from the fundraising scandal linked to his recent mayoral campaign in New York City. Additionally, some say Liu is known to be a "personality" -- one with bigger things and higher offices in mind.

"Tony deserves to be taught a lesson," grumbled one Senate Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You don't just walk out on the leader without giving her a call. (And) honestly, I don't know how Liu fits in with the new issue-free conference. He has his own stuff to deal with."

In some ways the race is an embarrassment of riches for a Senate district that includes Bay Terrace, Willets Point, College Point, Little Neck and Fresh Meadows: Both candidates are former city council members and former mayoral candidates and both have served at the top of the city Democratic Party ranks.

Avella served eight years on the City Council before running for mayor in 2009. He lost to Bill Thompson in the primary, but then challenged and defeated incumbent Republican state Sen. Frank Padavan to join the Legislature.

Liu has taken a similar career path. He served on the City Council from 2002 to 2008 and in 2009 ran successfully for Comptroller. Last year, Liu ran in the Democratic Primary for Mayor as the most progressive candidate, but lost after being dogged by investigations into his campaign's fundraising practices, which included straw donors and their bundling. Liu was denied matching funds by the Campaign Finance Board, which he and others claimed crippled his campaign and led to Bill de Blasio's ability to avoid a run-off.

Both Avella and Liu are now looking to prove who is the better Democrat.

Avella wants to return to Albany after abandoning the Democratic Conference to caucus with the Independent Democratic Conference. His departure was abrupt and without warning, according to Senate Democrats, and left members there with a lot of bad feelings. Avella wants to demonstrate that he is both an effective Democrat and that his choice to join the IDC wasn't a cynical one.

"It was really a combination of factors that led me to leave the Democratic Conference," said Avella in an interview with Gotham Gazette. "The most prominent one is that the Democratic Conference is dysfunctional -- they have no power, but they argue over everything. Plus, the fact that the IDC/Republican Conference, whether you like it or not, was working. I had things to do."

One of those things was stopping the closure of three senior centers that were going to be shuttered because of a lack of funding, Avella said. His concerns about the centers were dismissed by Senate Democrats, but as a member of the IDC he was involved in budget discussions and was able to provide funding to the centers, he said.

However, only months after Avella split from the Democratic Conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was forced into a deal with the Working Families Party to help Democrats gain control of the Senate and pressure the IDC to cut a power-sharing deal with the conference they left.

The progressive surge that put de Blasio into the mayor's office seemed to have united voters, unions, and advocates in scorn of the IDC.

After much backroom haggling, de Blasio himself organized the IDC agreement to caucus with Senate Democrats next year.

In turn, he has endorsed Avella and the other IDC members. Now, though, Avella has to deal with advocates and voters who were not satisfied by the pledge for a power-sharing agreement and want retribution for his defection - as well as the popularity of John Liu.

Liu may be responsible for some of the progressive winds that filled de Blasio's sails as he cruised to victory last year. Liu's progressive policies were extremely popular with voters. Avella's decision to join the IDC gave Liu an opening into the Queens race as Avella's credentials as a progressive have been damaged in the eyes of many legislators, voters, and advocates.

Liu's greatest liability - the shadow of the investigation into his fundraising practices - is a companion to his greatest asset: his ability to raise small amounts of cash from a myriad of donors. "The reality of our campaign is that we always start with the grassroots donors. We don't call them small donors because they are significant donors. I'm proud of that," Liu told Gotham Gazette. Liu says that the amount of small donors to his campaign surprised him given that his campaign came together only three months ago.

Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) provided analysis to Gotham Gazette that shows that from January to July of this year Liu received donations from 1,598 individuals, making him the Senate candidate with the most contributions from individuals by far. The Senate candidate with the second most contributions from individuals is Sen. George Latimer with 244 from January to July of this year, according to Mahoney. In fact, Liu had more individuals contribute to his campaign than the Senate candidates who are ranked 2-8 behind him on that list.

Liu has made waves in Albany with his fundraising numbers where most campaigns have a few big real estate, union, and corporate donors that keep them afloat. Liu's campaign has $487,222 on hand according to 32-day pre-primary filings. Avella meanwhile has only $126,381 on hand according to his 32-day filing. Avella's numbers have increased lately and regular Cuomo donor Leonard Litwin gave the incumbent $20,000.

Avella has argued that Liu's coffers should be smaller given that his campaign for Comptroller still owes the city $525,000 in fines for illegally hanging flyers around the city. Liu's current campaign is not liable for the fine and he is in talks with the City about repaying the debt. "Think about how many firemen, how many police that could pay for," said Avella.

Over the years both men have developed a reputation for how they deal with their constituents and the kind of representatives they are. Liu is the big thinker who attracts constituents who want to work and campaign for him. As the first Asian-American elected to city-wide office, Liu serves as an inspiration to an entire community. His big-ticket items should he be elected include The Dream Act, The Women's Equality Agenda, and raising the minimum wage. Liu was ahead of the game when it comes to a number of these issues as he championed a progressive agenda during his time on the Council, and during his stint as Comptroller and his mayoral campaign.

"Its about drawing people into the process, first-time volunteers who want to make an impact. I bring a skill set that is not necessarily up there yet (in Albany)." Liu notes that he was treated as "crazy" for some of his positions on wage equality and workforce issues but now those positions are being carried by Democrats across the state.

"I'm gratified many points of my campaign last year have seen the light of day. Because it's not just about the candidate, but about the ideas." Liu says that if elected one of his personal quests will be to focus on restructuring the tax burden on businesses so that small businesses get a break while larger ones "pay their fair share."

While Liu is larger than life, Avella is the head down public servant. His first newsletter as a council member was a checklist where constituents could check off problems they have like potholes, cracks in the sidewalk, overgrown trees, and more. He sent out a similar mailer as his first official Senate newsletter. Avella has won the support of environmental groups including the New York League of Conservation Voters for his work on their issues and his steadfast stance against hydrofracking.

Avella has also waged a campaign to reduce noise pollution from aircraft in his district and has taken credit for the Port Authority's new community roundtable dedicated to addressing airplane noise over Queens.

"I always believed in a hands-on approach," Avella said. "I see every correspondence that goes in and out of this office. I see every single complaint so that I know that it is handled in the best way."

So how would each man interact with colleagues as part of the new Democratic/IDC coalition if everything goes as expected this November?

Avella said he hopes that the Senate Democrats elect more members who "are truly progressive." He blames "two Democrats" for voting to block the Dream Act and says they would also block campaign finance reform. By inference, he would appear to be referring to Sen. Ruben Diaz, who has actually been rather friendly with the IDC, and Sen. Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans and who the IDC has worked with as part of its coalition.

Avella stresses that the IDC is not going to give up any power. "The deal is not that we go back, but that we will form a Democratic Majority Coalition that will be a mirror of the one that the IDC has with Republicans right now."

Liu said that while he thinks his ability to marshall the grassroots on issues like immigration and minimum wage will be an asset to the new coalition he also says he knows how to work as a member of a larger body. "I am proud to have the support of all the state senators whose support I have asked for," Liu said, noting that he didn't talk to upstate members because he doesn't know them. "I realize unlike my opponent that one Senator can't get anything done alone. You can't be a lone gun, you can't go it alone."

Both men acknowledge that on primary day winning and losing will come down to turnout - one that is expected to be particularly small. They've seen labor fairly split in endorsements between them and both say they are certain their loyal constituents will see them through. The two are expected to appear on Tuesday evening at a Bay Terrace candidates forum and on NY1's Inside City Hall on Wednesday night.

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

Categories: State/Local
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