Top Senate Republicans Affirm Support For Skelos

Top Republicans in the state Senate on Tuesday affirmed their support for Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who is under federal investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office.

The GOP conference is meeting privately this afternoon, their first session together after The New York Times revealed that Skelos is under a federal probe for potentially placing undue influence to help an Arizona-based company.

Republicans entering the closed-door meeting insisted Skelos had their support and brushed off talk of the investigation, the latest to ensnare a state lawmaker.

“It seems to be the thing of the day to be investigated,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco said. “Being the thing of the day, what do you say? I’m not worried, I’m concerned about the pressure he’s going under as you would be.”

The Syracuse Republican, who has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Skelos should he be forced to step down, insisted he wasn’t interested in the job.

“Nothing’s going to happen and I’m not interested,” DeFrancisco said.

Lawmakers want to turn the page, with an eye toward dealing with the contentious Common Core education issues as well as concerns about testing in public schools.

The session runs through June, and lawmakers will also have to consider an extension of rent control regulations for New York City as well as mayoral control of public schools.

“We want to get some productive things done rather than just languishing over an undisclosed investigation,” DeFrancisco said.

Nevertheless, the Skelos investigation remains a cloud over a state Capitol that has seen its share of corruption arrests, most recently with the indictment of now former Speaker Sheldon Silver of the Assembly on fraud and extortion charges.

Sen. Ken LaValle, a Long Island Republican, would not deny he had been issue a subpoena in the case.

“That’s a non-issue,” he said. “I’m not going to answer.”

But at the same time, he also reiterated his support for Skelos, adding that he is yet to be charged and the investigation at the moment remains ongoing.

“They have trust and faith in him,” he said referring to the GOP conference. “Don’t you think you’re being a little presumptuous?”

Education Reform Group Pushes Charter Cap Lift

Families for Excellent Schools, an education reform group that supporters charter schools, will call on the state to lift the cap on the alternative public schools.

The group plans a news conference in New York City on Wednesday at City Hall at 11 a.m.

“With the number of families on charter school waiting lists anticipated to reach record levels this year, dozens of parents will gather on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday to call on elected leaders in Albany to lift the charter cap in this year’s legislative session,” the group said in a news release. “The charter cap, an arbitrary and discriminatory restriction on the number of high-quality charter schools in low-income communities of color, denies choice to tens of thousands of families across New York City every year.”

The cap remains one of the outstanding to-do items from the state budget process.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had proposed increasing the cap statewide by 100, up from the current allowable number of schools at 460.

There are currently 248 charter schools operating in the state.

It is likely that lifting the cap on charter schools by the end of the legislative session will be linked to an extension of mayoral control of city schools, or possibly expanding mayoral control to upstate cities like Buffalo.

The approved 2015-16 state budget includes a program for struggling or “failing” schools to be taken over by a state monitor, with the schools potentially re-opening as charter schools.

Cuomo In Cuba, Day Two

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is on day two of his roughly 24-hour trip to Cuba, with plans to meet with the Communist-led country’s first vice president.

Cuomo is scheduled to visit to the Port of Mariel later today. After that, Cuomo will return to Havana to meet with First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel after the meeting was rescheduled from Monday.

The meeting with Diaz-Canel is expected to be closed press.

Following that meeting, Cuomo wraps up the trip by returning to Jose Marti Airport.

Cuomo is leading a delegation of state lawmakers and business representatives from New York-based companies as the U.S. seeks to normalize relations with the country.

Cuomo on Monday called on Congress to end the embargo on Cuba, according to NY1’s Zack Fink, who is on the ground with the governor in Cuba.

“We are looking forward to the embargo, as we call it in the United States, being lifted legally by Congress so that we can have normalization of relations,” Cuomo said.

Critics are pouncing on the trip over the country’s poor record on human rights, especially those of gays and lesbians.

Cuomo told reporters on Monday he would raise human rights concerns if appropriate.

“There is no doubt that Cuba has more progress to make on human rights. There is no doubt that Cuba has work to do on the LGBT relationships,” the governor said.

Bruno: Campaign Donations Open Doors

Campaign contributions can provide a different level of access for donors to politicians, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno acknowledged in a radio interview on Tuesday morning.

“Think about here in government, generally,” Bruno said in the interview on Talk-1300 with Fred Dicker. “How do people in business, how do people get access to people who are in office? How do you get access? By financially contributions, by being helpful. Unions — putting people on the street for elections.”

Bruno in the interview said donations can open doors for contributors, but he always strove to be “objective” when hearing their concerns and efforts to influence public policy.

“Because someone gave you a donation of a $100,000 — does it mean you’re going to lay down and play dead? Of course not,” Bruno said. “What I would do is being objective and look at both sides of the issue.”

Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, was acquitted last year of theft of honest services charges — his second corruption trial after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling tossed the previous charge the former lawmaker was found guilty on.

He was responding in part to questions raised about his successor as majority leader, Long Island Republican Dean Skelos, who is under federal investigation for potentially exerting undue influence on behalf of an Arizona-based company as well as a real-estate company with ties to prolific donor Leonard Litwin.

Bruno said he is familiar with Litwin, who he said was always “above board” in his public dealings and praised his contributions to charities.

At the same time, Bruno noted Litwin as a campaign contributor has been able to gain access to elected officials.

“So, naturally if a fellow steps up like Lenny Litwin and he donates hundreds of thousands of dollars, you’re going to take his phone calls, you’re staff is going to meet with him,” Bruno said.

Litwin was a top donor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the last election cycle, donating $1 million through a network of limited liability companies, a process that good-government groups have decried as a loophole in campaign finance regulations, but the state Board of Elections recently deadlocked when considering a revision to the regulation.

Bruno has been a frequent critic of federal prosecutors, and decried again this morning what he saw as an overly aggressive Department of Justice.

“It doesn’t seem to stop, especially over these last eight or 10 years,” Bruno said. “Prosecutors are overly zealous, they’re very, very zealous. But that’s not to say people in government shouldn’t be watched.”

NYSUT Calls For Open Process At SED On Evaluations

The New York State United Teachers union on Tuesday called on the state Department of Education to hold public hearings as it develops the regulations for the new teacher evaluation criteria approved in the budget this month.

The budget agreement sets new evaluation standards for teachers, which would consider a mix of standardized tests and in classroom observation.

One test will be used to evaluate teachers, with the option of adding a second test based on collective bargaining.

The Board of Regents will determine how much weight to give the tests versus observation.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in pushing the education reform measures in the budget, had sought a 50-50 scoring band.

“The governor’s punitive teacher evaluation plan will do nothing to improve the teaching and learning process. Parents are in the midst of a statewide revolt against the over-reliance on standardized testing and the way the governor’s ‘test-and-punish’ agenda is harming teaching and learning,” NYSUT President Karen Magee said. “The Regents have an opportunity to take this mess the governor foisted upon them and mitigate it. We believe it is essential that each Regent do what the governor refuses to do — and that’s listen to parents, educators and school leaders about what they want for their public schools.”

The umbrella group is surging public relations-wise after thousands of students opted out of taking the current round of state-based tests in schools this week. Some estimates peg the number of students opting at more than 100,000.

NYSUT remains at odds with Cuomo over the enacted 2015-16 state budget and the education policies, including the measures that scale back teacher tenure.

Assembly Democrats, who reluctantly approved the budget bill containing both education aid spending increases and the reform measures, have said they will be closely watching the Board of Regents setting the scoring bands as well.

School districts have until mid-November to set the new evaluation criteria or not receive the boost in state aid.

UFT Hits Airwaves With Anti-Cuomo Ad

From the Morning Memo:

The United Federation of Teachers, the NYC-based teachers union, has launched a new ad this morning that accuses Cuomo of playing politics with public schools and criticizes the education reform agenda he pushed during the budget battle.

The 30-second ad is part of a multimillion-dollar statewide campaign that kicks off in the NYC metro area today, and will hit the rest of the state tomorrow, according to a UFT press release.

It will run on major broadcast and cable news programs, the union said, as well as on some of television’s most popular shows including: “Scandal,” the finale of “The Americans,” “American Crime,” “The Blacklist,” “Mad Men,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and Major League Baseball – both the Yankees and the Mets.

The ad appears to be in response to a pro-Cuomo spot that has been running for several weeks, thanking the governor for his education reforms. That ad was paid for by the pro-charter organization Students First.

It’s interesting that the UFT made this move, especially since the union was blamed for perhaps declaring victory in the budget battle a little too soon, angering Cuomo and spurring him to push harder in the eleventh hour for reform measures the unions – and many Democratic lawmakers – really didn’t like.

The UFT was noticeably quiet when the statewide teachers union, NYSUT, launched its push to get parents to opt their kids out of standardized tests in an effort to undermine the teacher evaluation system.

And some upstate Assembly Democrats who are under fire from NYSUT have quietly complained that the UFT let downstate members off the hook when it came to voting “yes” on the education portion of the budget.

Here’s the script for the UFT’s ad, which was produced by Shorr Johnson Magnus Strategic Media:

“For months Andrew Cuomo attacked teachers and public schools. Now, with his support at record lows, so-called education reformers and their billionaire backers are running TV ads trying to rewrite history. But we know the truth.

“Cuomo wants to pile on high stakes testing, privatize classrooms, and divert money away from public schools by giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy.”

“Governor, New Yorkers agree: Put politics aside and put our kids first.”

Clinton’s Gain Is Maloney’s Loss

From the Morning Memo:

As Hillary Clinton continues to staff up her 2016 campaign operation across the country, she has poached a top aide of a New York congressman who once worked for her husband in the White House.

Clinton has tapped Stephanie Formas to serve as her communications director in South Carolina. Formas, a Texas native, is currently the deputy chief of staff to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who was former President Clinton’s senior West Wing adviser and White House staff secretary.

Maloney, a Democrat, recently won re-election to a second two-year term, defeating the Republican he ousted from the House in 2012, former Rep. Nan Hayworth.

The congressman routinely played up his Clinton ties during his campaigns, and received an in-person boost from the former secretary of state/US senator/first lady shortly before the general election last year.

Here and Now

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is due back from Cuba today. He’s scheduled to be the guest speaker at the Food Bank for NYC’s 13th Annual Can Do Awards Dinner, where the publishing company of his girlfriend, Food Network star Sandra Lee, is among the honorees.

The Legislature returns to work after a nearly three-week spring break, kicking off the post-budget session.

It was expected to be a busy time, given how many policy issues were pushed out of the budget to be dealt with later. But the US attorney’s investigation into Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, could put a damper on things in a big way, giving lawmakers the incentive (on that side of the Capitol, anyway) to mark time without getting much done until the session ends in June.

There are some big ticket items that need to be dealt with. Both the NYC rent laws and mayoral control of the NYC schools “sunset” in June. But the Senate Republicans didn’t have much interest in the first place in doing anything to assist NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who tried unsuccessfully to help the Democrats re-take the majority last fall.

And there’s very little the GOP conference wants or needs in terms of horse trading possibilities, with the exception of the Education Investment Tax Credit and raising the charter cap.

The Democrats, on the other hand, want and need quite a bit, including the aforementioned NYC issues, another increase in the minimum wage, the DREAM Act, and criminal justice reform – just to name a few.

Also happening today…

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio will attend an event hosted by the Campaign for One New York. This event will be closed press.

At 8:15 a.m., Department of Financial Services superintendent Ben Lawsky participates in Q&A at Wall Street Journal’s newsmaker’s forum, Le Parker Meridien, 119 W. 56th St., Manhattan.

From 9 a.m. to noon, the state’s Human Rights Commissioner Helen Diane Foster, and state Department of Homes and Community Renewal’s Tenant Protection Unit Deputy Commissioner Richard White, speak during the introduction of a public education campaign about housing discrimination regulations; art gallery, second floor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, 163 W. 125th St., Manhattan.

At 9:30 a.m., Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, joined by community and government officials and senior citizens, introduces his pedestrian safety initiative titled “Connecting Residents on Safer Streets Brooklyn” or “CROSS Brooklyn”; Amico Senior Citizens Center, 5901 13th Ave., Brooklyn.

At 10 a.m., to publicize the completion of a $25 million project intended to reduce Grand Central Terminal’s energy costs and usage, NYPA President and CEO Gil Quiniones and MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast hold a news conference and tour, coinciding with the Wednesday, April 22, observance of Earth Day; near the clock, main concourse, Park Avenue and 42nd Street, Manhattan.

At 11 a.m., the New York State Nurses Association holds a rally, West Capitol Park, Albany.

Also at 11 a.m., FASNY President Robert McConville and local firefighters announce the fifth annual RecruitNY statewide firefighter recruitment initiative, Baldswinsville Volunteer Fire Department Station One, 7911 Crego Rd., Baldswinsville.

At 11:45 a.m., Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, representatives from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and other patient advocates hold a news conference on meningitis vaccinations, Room 130, Legislative Office Building, 198 State St., Albany.

At 1 p.m., NYC Council members Jumaane Williams and Helen Rosenthal hold a joint oversight hearing on de Blasio’s housing plan, City Hall chambers, Manhattan.

At 2 p.m., the Assembly is in session, Assembly chamber, Capitol, Albany.

At 3 p.m., the Senate is in session, Senate chamber, Capitol, Albany.

At 6 p.m., Cuomo speaks at the Food Bank for New York City’s annual Can Do awards dinner, Cipriani Wall Street, 55 Wall St., Manhattan.

At 6:30 p.m., Staten Island DA and NY-11 GOP candidate Dan Donovan and Safe Horizon officials sponsor a 21st annual “Staten Island Crime Victims’ Candlelight Vigil,” marking the observance of “National Crime Victims’ Rights Week” from Sunday through Saturday, April 19 to 25; SIPP Auditorium, Richmond University Medical Center, 355 Bard Ave., Staten Island.

Headlines…

Gov. Andrew Cuomo remained optimistic about the opportunities for doing business with Cuba, despite the many obvious barriers that were on display during his whirlwind trade mission there.

Cuomo reiterated his goal was to generate “momentum” to help federal officials roll back legal impediments and grant some licenses – including one that would let JetBlue begin regular service – as soon as possible.

While in Cuba, Cuomo indulged his gearhead side, marveling at a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air that had a Toyota engine inside. He was also presented by the country’s trade minister with what he said was his first Cuban cigar.

“Isolation has not worked,” Cuomo said of the US strategy for dealing with Cuba. “We have had 50 years of isolation and it has not worked. Engagement and full relationships is the best way on the issues that we agree with and the issues that we disagree with.”

After several years in which teachers’ unions have been hammered on the issue of tenure, have lost collective bargaining rights in some states and have seen their evaluations increasingly tied to student scores, they have begun, with some success, to reassert themselves using a bread-and-butter issue: the annual tests given to elementary and middle school students in every state.

The UFT released a new TV ad today to “set the record straight” on Cuomo’s education agenda, accusing him of playing politics with public schools.

More >

Extras

A NYT investigation found Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie benefitted from his mother’s embezzling, failing to sell an apartment purchased with ill-gotten gains when directed by a judge, and then profitting when he finally did so.

The schedule for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 25-hour trade mission to Cuba includes a “working lunch” with Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz, Cuba’s Minister of Trade and Foreign Investments, and a meeting with the country’s first vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel.

The governor’s Flickr page has some photos of his trip.

Onondaga County Republican Committee Chairman Tom Dadey was among Republicans blasting Cuomo’s trip to Cuba, calling it shortsighted and ill-advised.

Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Islander whose mother is a Cuban exile, said any efforts to normalize relations must be accompanied by significant concessions from the Castro regime.

Former Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin was found guilty of selling her vote for a 50-percent ownership in a community center-catering hall offered by a Monsey developer working as an undercover FBI operative.

Was former Gov. David Paterson’s criticism of US Attorney Preet Bharara planted, encouraged or otherwise influenced by Cuomo?

New York City’s subway system carried 1.75 billion customers last year, as ridership grew by the highest annual amount in more than 65 years, according to new figures released by the MTA.

Supporting District Attorney Daniel Donovan’s bid for Congress and his handling of the explosive Eric Garner case, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani will host a fundraiser for the Republican candidate next weekend.

At least 14 former state lawmakers are currently collecting a state pension despite being convicted of a crime.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is soliciting information regarding the Clinton Foundation’s acceptance of contributions from foreign governments in his latest move to cast doubt on the former secretary of state’s candidacy.

The New York Times, The Washington Post and Fox News have made exclusive agreements with a conservative author for early access to his opposition research on Clinton – a move that has confounded members of her campaign and some reporters.

Assemblywoman Margaret Markey wants Pope Francis to meet with survivors of sexual abuse when he visits New York in September.

Republican Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo has told county Republican leaders he is taking a “hard look” at challenging Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone this fall and will make a final decision by next week.

The Shooters Committee on Political Education wrote an open letter to Senate Republicans, accusing senators of reneging on their pledge to not support a budget that includes SAFE Act funding.

Declaring traffic tie-ups of up to three hours “unacceptable,” Sen. Chuck Schumer vowed to wield his “clout” to help fund a $64 million proposal for widening the U.S. plaza at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

Two LLCs connected to Leonard Litwin’s Glenwood Management donated a total of $5,000 to state Assembly candidate Shirley Paterson, who is running for former Assemblyman Karim Camara’s seat and is backed by the powerful Brooklyn Democratic Party.

The fight against mixed martial arts has escalated, with a group of prominent New York Jewish leaders saying that legalizing the controversial sport could benefit a major anti-Israel force.

Here are this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners, which include Buffalo News cartoonist Adam Zyglis, who won for editorial cartooning.

POLITICO publisher Robert Allbritton has set a goal of tripling the size of the company in four years, POLITICO co-founders Jim VandeHei and John Harris said in a staff memo today.

A Saranac Lake teacher finished a 150-mile protest march to the state Capitol today.

New York Democrats Fundraise Off Walker Fundraiser

The New York Democratic state committee on Monday blasted a fundraiser being held in Manhattan today for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — and sought to raise some money themselves.

Walker, a likely Republican candidate for president, is common fodder for liberals after he gained national prominence for his fights with labor unions in his state and his support from Charles and David Koch.

“He is an enemy of hard-working American families, and his values are NOT New York values. It’s that simple,” wrote the party’s new executive director Basil Smikle. “He stands against the rights of workers in his home state and everywhere. Although everyone is welcome here in New York, his wrongheaded, ultra-conservative policies are not.”

Walker has pursued tough policies against organized labor.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a decidedly mixed record with labor unions as well. Cuomo has bolstered support among private-sector unions that represent builders, construction and health-care interests like 1199 SEIU as well as the Hotel Trades Council.

However, Cuomo was not endorsed by the AFL-CIO’s state chapter. He remains at odds with the statewide teachers union, NYSUT, over his education policies included in the state budget that seek to weaken tenure.

At the same time, Cuomo angered rank-and-file public employees at the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation for pushing less generous labor contracts that expire or have expired this year.

Cuomo in 2013 also pushed through a new, less generous pension level, Tier Six.

Still, Cuomo has not pursued labor measures to the extent that Walker has, such as right-to-work laws.