Independence Party Backs Donovan in NY-11

The state Independence Party has announced its support of Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan’s run to fil the House seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Michael Grimm, giving the Republican candidate three ballot lines in the May 5 special election.

The Independence Party’s decision comes on the heels of an announcement yesterday from the state Conservative Party that it, too, had voted to back Donovan, who will face off against Democratic Brooklyn Councilman Vincent Gentile in two months.

In a statement announcing the endorsement, state Independence Party Chairman Frank MacKay said Donovan “has proven time and again that he puts people before politics,” adding:

“His integrity and commitment to public service is unparalleled. With all of the important issues facing our city and nation right now, I know Dan is the right man for the job. We are proud to endorse him as the next congressman for the people of Staten Island and South Brooklyn.”

When he ran for state attorney general in 2010, Donovan removed his name from consideration for endorsement by the Independence Party after his office received “several allegations of misconduct” by MacKay. The DA said he was withdrawing his name “to preserve the integrity of my office and the integrity of any possible investigation undertaken.”

Donovan later cleared MacKay in a probe that involved a candidate seeking the Independence Party endorsement in a NYC Council special election whose company had loaned $10,000 to a software company run by MacKay’s wife, Kristin.

The Independence Party ended up backing a placeholder candidate, Long Isdland attorney Steve Lynch, and then replacing Lynch with then-state Sen. Eric Schneiderman after his won the five-way Democratic state AG primary. Schneiderman went on to defeat Donovan in the November general election. (In order to get Lynch off the ballot, the Monroe County Democrats agreed to nominate him for a state Supreme Court judgeship, which he did not win).

Cuomo Promotes Regional Benefits Of Property Tax Plan

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office on Monday sought to shore up support for his $1.66 billion property tax proposal, which would tie increases to a household’s income, by giving a region-by-region breakdown of the plan’s potential impact.

“We must ensure economic opportunity in New York – and that means putting money back in the pockets of hardworking homeowners who have been struggling under the crushing burden of property taxes for far too long,” Cuomo said in a statement. “During the last four years, we capped property taxes, and then we froze them. Now we are going to cut them. This program addresses the one of the most important challenges we face as a state – making New York affordable – by providing real, meaningful, significant tax relief that will make a difference in people’s lives.”

The proposal is being paid for with a projected budget surplus, which Cuomo’s office plans will come from keeping spending under 2 percent increases. The plan would be phased in over four years.

Cuomo’s plan is essentially a version of the circuit-breaker relief proposal that has been proposed multiple times over the years.

Cuomo’s tax plan comes on top of a cap on property tax increases, which was first approved in 2011.

The plan also includes a tax credit for renters, with relief linked to a renter’s income, added last year at the behest of affordable housing advocates.

The property tax relief plan would impact homeowners with household incomes below $250,000 and whose taxes exceed 6 percent of their income.

On Monday, Cuomo’s office released a county-by-county analysis of how much taxpayers in a given area would benefit (For example, 15,296 in Broome County would receive an average credit of $686, totaling some $10.5 million, etc).

‘Scheduling Confilct’ Keeps Perry From NY

An unspecified “scheduling conflict” prevented former Texas Governor and potential 2016 presidential contender Rick Perry from appearing in New York today as the headliner at a luncheon hosted by the Monroe County GOP.

Assemblyman and party Chairman Bill Reilich said he was not provided any details by Perry’s team about exactly what had come up that prevented the Texas Republican from making the trip to Rochester. But Reilich didn’t seem terribly surprised or upset about the cancellation.

“When you’re dealing with someone who’s as busy as he is, these things happen,” the chairman told me during a brief telephone interview this afternoon.

Reilich said he has been assured that Perry will appear in upstate New York at a later date, though he could provide no specifics.

Perry was supposed to be the guest speaker at a luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, with a private VIP reception held prior to the lunch. The former governor has said he plans a May/June timetable for deciding whether he will throw his hat into the ring again to compete for the GOP nomination for the 2016 presidential race.

During his time in office, Perry was a frequent critic of New York, which is known for its high taxes and difficult business climate – both issues Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tried to tackle over the past four years and continued to address in his 2015-16 executive budget. The former governor has traveled to the Empire State several times in hopes of convincing businesses to relocate to the Lone Star State, and he has even run ads here – and in other states, too – urging companies and residents to move.

Schenectady Republicans Knocked By Gun-Rights Advocates For Hosting Skelos

The co-founder of a gun-rights organization is criticizing the Schenectady County Republican Committee for hosting Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos as its keynote speaker at an upcoming event.

Skelos is due to speak at the county GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner on Wednesday.

“The state languishes in an oppressive regulatory environment; has seen droves of its citizens flee to other states; and has a government mired in corruption,” wrote Jake Palmateer, the co-founder of the group NY2A, in a letter sent last week to Chairman James Buhrmaster. “But Upstate New Yorkers see a glimmer of hope amidst the darkness. The ire created by the federal corruption investigation and the continued political action of SAFE Act opponents could restore a voice in Albany for Upstate New York in future election cycles. The keynote speaker selection of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos by the Schenectady County GOP undercuts that hope and demonstrates the short-sightedness of a political party on the edge of irrelevance in New York State.”

The letter underscores the conservative dissatisfaction with the passage of the SAFE Act, which included a number of Senate Republicans backing the gun-control legislation, which passed in January 2013.

Skelos agreed to allowing a vote on the bill and voted in favor of its passage.

Senate Republicans have pointed to a number of provisions in the bill that address using illegally obtained firearms and the murder of first responders.

Still, Republicans in the chamber won full control of the Senate last year after three upstate Democrats lost their seats to GOP challengers.

Flanagan: $1.1 Billion Education Hike ‘The Floor’

For Gov. Andrew Cuomo, $1.1 billion is the ceiling on increasing state education spending in this year’s $142 billion budget proposal.

But Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan in a radio interview Monday called Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s high-end increase figure “the floor.”

Cuomo is tying much of the increase to approval of his education policy changes in this year’s budget, including a new teacher evaluation system, addressing failing schools by having them taken over by a state monitory and a strengthening of charter schools.

Without the passage of those measures, education spending would be hiked by $340 million.

“Tying everything together… or there’s no money, I don’t think that’s going work,” Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, said on The Capitol Pressroom.

The state Board of Regents, a semi-independent entity charged with setting education policy in the state, last year set its funding aspirations at $2 billion, twice as much as what Cuomo has proposed with policy measures approved.

“We look at $1.1 billion and say, ‘that’s a floor,”” Flanagan said.

As he has in recent weeks, the lawmaker added that Cuomo won’t be able to get everything he wants on education, even as the governor plays hardball by including them in his budget proposal.

“You can’t throw 20 things out there and say ‘I want everything’. Life doesn’t work that way,” Flanagan said.

A top priority for Senate Republicans this year has been completely eliminating the gap elimination adjustment through the budget, a move Flanagan said there’s “no question” he wants to see happen.

Adding more spending to the education portion of the budget — typically the most costly in New York’s spending plan save for Medicaid — is a perennial concern for state lawmakers, especially those from suburban school districts.

“This is my 29th year in the legislature and I don’t care who the Governor is, we always add,” Flanagan said.

Teachers Union Leaders Question Charter School Rally

The statewide teachers union on Monday criticized Success Academy Charter Schools for planning to close on Wednesday in anticipation of a massive pro-charter rally in Albany.

In a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Board of Regents Chancellor Merry Tisch and Acting Education Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin, New York State United Teachers Karen Magee and Vice President Andy Pallotta questioned the plan to close the schools in order to hold what amounts to a political demonstration at the Capitol.

The charter school organization held a similarly large rally last year and closed its schools in order to bring students and parents to the rally.

“New York State United Teachers is seeking your views on several important questions raised by the upcoming Success Academy event. As a matter of policy, should Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc., as taxpayer-funded public schools, be permitted to close their doors and transport students, parents and staff to Albany for a rally? Even if they use substantial private funds, is this the “right thing for students?”

The union leaders also wondered whether they would be similarly criticized if public school districts closed “en masse” for an advocacy day at the Capitol.

“If school boards and superintendents in the state’s nearly 700 school districts also wish to close en masse for a day and transport thousands of their students, parents and staff to Albany to lobby for additional state funding, would that be permissible? Would you consider closing traditional public schools for a rally to be good public policy and the ” right thing” for all students?”

The letter is the latest salvo in the battle over education policy in the state.

Cuomo’s $142 billion budget would increase education spending by as much as $1.1 billion, but much of that funding increase is tied to enacting a number of policy changes ranging from a more stringent teacher evaluation law and a strengthening of the state’s charter schools.

The teachers unions have sought to frame Cuomo’s push as being “anti-teacher” by pursuing those policies, while the governor points to merit bonuses for especially high-performing teachers.

lettertogovcuomochantischandactingcommberlin by Nick Reisman

Effort To Scale Back SAFE Act Backed By Assembly Democrat

Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi announced on Monday he had signed on to a legislative package that would alter and scale back some provisions of the SAFE Act, a omnibus gun control bill approved in 2013.

The measures, which are also backed by Sen. James Seward of Oneida, would address major aspects of the gun control law championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which he counts among his most significant accomplishments as governor over the last four years.

The proposals would end the ban on giving long guns as gifts to relatives and pistol permit holders, repeal a provision in the law that limits 10-round magazines to seven rounds and end the requirement for ammunition retailers to register with the state and provide background checks on customers.

At the same time, county judges would be banned from “imposing extraneous restrictions” in issuing pistol and handgun licenses.

It’s not unusual for Republicans to seek amendments or outright repeals of the law, which has become a lightning rod for gun-rights advocates around the state and country.

But it is eyebrow-raising for a Democrat to back such a sweeping repeal.

In a statement, Brindisi pointed to concerns being raised by gun owners over the years.

“Over the past two years, I’ve received numerous letters and phone calls from constituents who are responsible gun owners, and who have some very valid objections to some of the most burdensome aspects of this law,” said Brindisi, a Utica Democrat. “The four bills I am introducing in the assembly would roll back some requirements of the NY-SAFE Act that are an unnecessary burden on responsible gun owners.”

Seward, a Republican who did not support the law’s passage in 2013, took a pointed view of the existing law.

“The reactionary, hastily drafted and passed NY-SAFE Act was meant for headlines and has done nothing to stop criminals from getting guns and using them for illegal purposes,” he said. “We need to take action now to correct the many technical issues the law created for responsible gun owners who shoot for sport, collect firearms, and carry guns to protect themselves and their families.”

A New Hope for Port Authority Reform

From the Morning Memo:

Last Wednesday, the state Senate was poised to vote on a Port Authority Reform bill.  But at the request of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the sponsor, Republican Staten Island Sen. Andrew Lanza, laid it aside.

This is the very same bill that Cuomo and NJ Gov. Chris Christie vetoed late last year on the Saturday night after Christmas. Not content to accept that the reform bill was unnecessary, the legislatures of both states have been pressing ahead with another showdown over the same issue.

New York has been moving the bill relatively quickly. It has cleared all the requisite committees, and is now set for a vote in both houses. Since the Port Authority is a bi-state agency, any bills need to clear all four legislative houses – two in each state. It did so unanimously in all four last year – highly unusual…to put it mildly.

After the vetoes, New York began a new session and had to reintroduce the bill. New Jersey must override Christie’s veto, which will be easy enough to do in the state Assembly. But in the Senate, three Republican votes will be needed, and so far the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bob Gordon of Bergen County, only a commitment from one Republican. An override vote has nevertheless been set for March 16th.

Enter Tom Kean Jr. The New Jersey Senate Republican minority leader may very well have found a face-saving way for everyone to get out of this.

Kean’s bill, detailed here by Dustin Racioppi,  is a hybrid of the measure the legislative sponsors wanted and what the governors asked for. It’s about 80 prcent of what was included in the original legislation, and 80 percent of what the governors said was needed. It has legislative oversight of the bi-state agency, but not quite as much as the old bill.

It also codifies the reforms adopted by the Port Authority two weeks ago that the governors specifically asked for, which includes changing the governing structure at the Port so there is no longer a situation where the deputy executive director was serving one governor, and the executive director another.

The latter situation is what led to the Bridgegate scandal – or so some have theorized. The bill does not address something the two governors asked for, but have since backed away from, which is calling for the resignations of the board’s commissioners.

Kean had been working on his bill for roughly two months. He saw an opening when the New York Senate paused on the bill last week. That’s when he called Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican. The two leaders spoke by phone last Friday. Kean has sent copies of his bill to the sponsors in both states as well as both governors. He consulted Christie’s office and even some of the commissioners at the port – including Chairman John “What’s the purpose of resigning?!?” Degnan (yes, he actually said that ).

Kean’s bill also includes a provision giving the minority leaders in each house of both states some say over whether a high level Port Authority employee can be called before them to testify. That is clearly a swipe at New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who has led a special commission into Bridgegate, which critics say has lasted over a year and has so far produced zero evidence that Christie knew anything about the lane closures ahead of time.

Wisniewski might take issue with that characterization, but that’s a fight for another day.

Reached by phone over the weekend, Kean said his legislation is:

“The only proposal that has a chance to pass in all four chambers and be signed by both governors. It provides for transparency, oversight and management efficiency. It is a bill that will benefit New York and New Jersey taxpayers and commuters alike.”

If Kean Jr.’s name sounds familiar, that is because his father, Tom Kean Sr., was a two-term Republican governor of New Jersey. Kean Sr. was later tapped by President Bush (the younger ) to lead the 9/11 Commission, which he did with precision and humility. Kean Sr. then had the courage to tell me years later on the record that the Iraq war (the second one ) was “the wrong place to go.”

Kean Jr., who may very well be running for governor himself in 2017, hasn’t always had the smoothest relationship with Christie, who tried to take him out as minority leader two years ago.

As an aside: It is curious to me that Christie has difficulty getting along with just about everyone EXCEPT Cuomo.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan, also reached by phone this weekend, and also a sponsor of the original legislation, said he would review the Kean Compromise. He wants to make sure that this is something Christie would sign. Brennan met with Cuomo’s staff last week who still gave him no guidance on what they’d be willing to accept.

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said of the Kean Compromise:

“We’ll review this proposal and, as we have said before, will work with all stakeholders to make the necessary reforms to the Port Authority.”

Bottom line is this: If the two governors are serious about reform, they will figure out a way to embrace some form of Kean’s bill. If they have no interest in greater oversight and want to keep the Port under the control of the executive branch in both states, they will not work with anyone.

That’s why the bills are ready to go again in both houses in New York, and why the New Jersey Senate will still consider an override.

Republicans have no interest in embarrassing Christie in New Jersey – unless, of course, he doesn’t work with them at all on this. Then it seems likely Kean as minority leader may be able to find Sen. Gordon the three votes he would need.

It was Ronald Reagan who once said of nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviets: “Trust, but verify.” In this case, legislators trust that the governors want to do the right thing, but they have the alternative ready just in case. And it was the great Flavor Flav who once said (and I think this applies to the situation the governors have gotten themselves into): “You dropped out of a jelly into a jam.”

The Kean Compromise just might be the best way forward for everyone. Because as Kean said himself, up to now  “Everyone has been talking past each other.”

***Author’s Note*** My quote from Flavor Flav was from when he was a badass with Public Enemy…long before he did stupid reality shows with Brigitte Nielsen. Just to be clear.

Senate Advances Term Limits Bill

From the Morning Memo:

The state Senate has advanced to its active list a measure carried by Republican Sen. Joe Griffo that would place term limits on legislative leaders and committee chairs.

The bill has been approved by the chamber before, most recently last year, but has stalled in the Democratic-led Assembly.

Republicans have previously enshrined term limits in the Senate chamber’s rules, a post-coup reform that stuck.

If approved, the posts of temporary Senate president, Assembly speaker and minority leaders of the conferences would be term limited to eight years.

Committee chairs would be capped at serving eight consecutive years.

The bill’s speed through the Legislature this session comes following the arrest of now-former Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is accused of using his office to accept bribes and kickbacks which he masked as legal referrals.

Silver stepped down from the speaker’s post in January following his arrest. He was replaced by Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie, who told reporters he is “not a fan” of term limits.

The bill’s activation also comes after Senate Republicans late last week quietly introduced a trio of ethics bills, including one that would require financial disclosure of non-family members who live with state officials.

The bill, seemingly targeting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s girlfriend Sandra Lee, was not meant to do so, a Senate GOP spokeswoman insisted.

Closed-Door Leaders Meetings Commence

From the Morning Memo:

Like clockwork, the first meetings on the budget took place last week at the Capitol, and it included three old faces and one new addition.

The budget decision making process in Albany has long been criticized by good-government groups.

Little information is made available following the closed-door sessions between leaders in the state Senate and Assembly when it comes to making major policy decisions and figuring out how to spend the state’s $142 billion budget.

“The discussions we’ve had were very broad. A lot of public policy issues have been discussed and we’re focused on getting an on-time budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

The so-called “three men in a room” meetings in recent years grew to four with the inclusion of Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein while his conference was in a power-sharing agreement with the Republicans.

He is still being included this year, even after losing power and the title of Senate co-president.

“You guys were writing a couple of weeks ago that I wasn’t going to be included, so I’m included, I’m glad I’m included and I’m going to work very closely with the new speaker and Dean Skelos to move our state forward,” Klein said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Klein’s voice in the talks is needed, even if he doesn’t have the power he had in the last two years after Republicans gained full control of the Senate.

“I’ve spoken to Sen. Skelos about it,” Cuomo said at a cabinet meeting last week. “We both agree that he has a group that may be important to pass many of these items because you have a close number of votes in the Senate.

Including Klein highlights the insular process of budget-making in Albany, a process that critics say should include legislative minority leaders like Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb.

“We have great ideas. Our conference is known for great ideas,” Kolb said.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins agrees.

“The budget is the policy document of the state so I think the broader the voices are that are hard at the table, the better the product will be,” she said.

This year’s leaders meetings come after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sharply criticized the practice of closed-door budget talks, likening the private negotiations to a sitcom, while questioning the lack of sunlight on the budget process.

Ultimately, it’s up to Cuomo to decide who comes to the meetings, and he has no desire to change the format. Several years ago, state officials attempted public leaders meetings.

“We had those budget meetings before I came here that were scripted that frankly were a mockery in my opinion,” said Cuomo.

One thing that is different this year is there’s a new speaker: Carl Heastie of the Bronx will negotiate his first budget since taking over for embattled Manhattan Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, who faces corruption charges. He has no plans to push for either Kolb or Stewart-Cousins to be included.

“I’m there to represent the interests of the Assembly majority and so when there’s going to be a meeting to discuss the issues the Assembly majority has, that’s where I’m going to go,” Heastie said.