Cuomo Calls This Budget The Hardest He’s Negotiated

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the negotiations over this year’s state budget “without a doubt” the hardest he’s dealt with since taking office.

No deal had been reached as of Saturday afternoon and Cuomo had left the Capitol for appearances at the Inner Circle show’s cocktail hour and the Greek Independence Day Parade’s gala, both in New York City.

Cuomo reiterated that he still wants a budget that includes ethics legislation pertaining to the disclosure of legal clients of state lawmakers and what he called a broad transformation of the state’s education system.

“At the end of the day I want to be able to say transformation of education and ethics reforms that you haven’t seen in decades,” Cuomo told reporters in a gaggle outside of his office.

A final figure for education spending was not revealed, though sources believe it will be around $1.4 billion, if not more.

Still, Cuomo indicated a number of issues in the budget are yet to be resolved, including tougher criteria for teacher evaluations.

Education policy, which Assembly Democrats and the governor have been locked in protracted negotiations, has been the most arduous, Cuomo indicated.

Cuomo said he wants “a really comprehensive transformation of probably what’s one of the most entrenched systems in the state of New York, what’s called the public education system. It’s probably as not as good as it should be, but has always defied change.”

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are pushing to alter his proposal to spend $5 billion in windfall surplus funds, which a $1.5 billion upstate economic development competition.

“Upstate New York has been short changed for decades,” Cuomo said. “I want to continue momentum and continue the investment.”

Cuomo opened the door to considering a property-tax rebate program and a minimum wage hike outside of the budget process — potentially leaving those issues, plus the DREAM Act and education investment tax credit to June.

Negotiations in recent days at the Capitol had centered around potentially linking some form of property tax relief to a minimum wage increase.

“Property tax cuts, minimum wage, Dream Act, EITC — these are issues you can address in the regular session,” Cuomo said.

The DREAM Act, which provides tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants and the tax credit — meant to encourage donations to public schools and scholarship programs that benefit private schools — remain priorities, the governor said.

“Having said that, we still have a budget,” he said.

Cuomo insisted he would still have the leverage to do those items out of the budget negotiations, a process in which a governor typically has more power over state lawmakers.

“You still have the money in the budget,” Cuomo said. “If you pass a tax credit in June, you have the money. If you pass a rebate in June, you have the money.”

Still, leaving those measures out of the spending plan will make for a very busy June and Cuomo still use the expiration of rent laws and mayoral control for New York City to his advantage.

Cuomo acknowledged that it’s likely he would have to issue messages of necessity for some budget bills that are yet to be introduced in order to have them voted on early in the week.

Lawmakers Continue To Haggle Over Education Aid

Assembly Democrats on Saturday continued to hash out the finer points of the 2015-16 state budget and while a deal seemed close, details on school receivership, education aid distribution and a potential minimum wage hike linked to property tax relief still remained outstanding issues.

Speaker Carl Heastie met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo for about an hour on Saturday morning before returning to speak with some of the Democratic lawmakers who returned to the Capitol. Assembly Democrats are expected to be back at the Capitol by Sunday evening.

“We’re moving, we’re talking, we’re still anticipating an on-time budget,” Heastie told reporters outside of his office.

“Nothing is final, it hasn’t been closed down,” he added.

Still, a handful of budget bills have gone to print, including amended spending proposals for the public-protection and general government spending, as well as transportation and economic development spending.

Budget bills posted late last night showed a long-sought pay raise schedule for management-confidential workers — state employees who are not members of a public-workers union — that would be in place through 2018.

Management confidential employees or “M/Cs” have lobbied officials to include the pay raise in a budget plan after the governor vetoed a commission that would recommend potential salary increases.

Broader questions remain on school aid, however, even as education reforms such as teacher evaluation criteria are no longer linked to funding.

Sources familiar with the discussion say a final school aid figure could be north of $1.4 billion. The more nettlesome task now underway for legislative and executive staff is distributing school aid, and the “runs” for districts may not be available until early next week.

“We’re still going over the break down on the education,” Heastie said.

Meanwhile, Assembly Democrats continue to raise concerns with Cuomo’s proposal to have the state takeover struggling schools.

Lawmakers want to include a local component for school receivership as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pushes his own renewal program for public schools on the local level.

Democrats are also pushing for a minimum wage increase in the final state budget agreement, a push that could end up linking a property tax relief plan favored by Senate Republicans.

Cuomo had initially proposed a rebate program akin to a circuit-breaker for tax relief as well as a two-tiered wage increase for New York City and a lower one for the rest of the state. Assembly Democrats in their one-house budget resolution sought to expand on that measure by including the northern suburbs as well as Long Island in the higher wage bracket.

As for ethics disclosure in the budget, Senate Republicans were poised to make an agreement on a bill that would require revealing outside legal clients, a move already backed by Assembly Democrats.

“Ask the governor and the Senate,” Heastie said of the ethics package. “We’re comfortable.”

The budget is due by Tuesday, the final day of the state’s fiscal year.

Meetings with the Mayor

Mayor de Blasio met with a host of prominent New Yorkers over the last six months of 2014 – but only once with Governor Cuomo. That’s according to his official schedule, released today through a Freedom of Information Act request. The mayor and Governor sat down together at Casa Lever, an Italian restaurant in Midtown, on July 11. He also dined with former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on September 30 at Prime Grill, a kosher steakhouse in Manhattan.
While the mayor says he is fighting to close the gap between wealthy and poor New Yorkers, his schedule shows he’s made time for some of the city’s biggest leaders in finance and media. He spoke on the phone with Jamie Dimon, the CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase and met with Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, for 45 minutes at City Hall in July. De Blasio also met with Les Moonves, the President and CEO of CBS in August and had a phone call with him in November. All three ended up serving on the mayor’s host committee as part of the city’s push to win the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Opponents of the horse-drawn carriage industry also got an audience with the mayor. He hosted a meeting with two prominent opponents at Gracie Mansion in September. Steven Nislick and Wendy Neu got an hour of his time, according to his schedule. Both were big donors to the anti-Christine Quinn group “New York City Is Not For Sale” during the 2013 mayor’s race.
Also invited to Gracie Mansion? Lobbyists Harold Ickes and Janine Enright. They came for dinner with the mayor and his wife. Ickes, a former Clinton administration official, is also an adviser to the mayor.
There was some time for celebrating, the mayor’s schedule shows. He attended a reunion with his campaign staff at a rooftop bar on September 10th, exactly a year after he won the Democratic primary. The views from the top of 230 Fifth Avenue are impressive. The mayor and his aides could take a good look at the city they had won.

Extras

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced he won’t seek re-election in 2016, and endorsed US Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber as his leadership successor.

Reid insisted the injuries he sustained during a January exercising accident were “nothing” compared to what he sustained in the ring as a young boxer, and said the incident did not motivate his decision to retire.

Reid said he believed the No. 2 Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin, would stand aside for his former roommate, Schumer.

As predicted, Durbin is indeed backing Schumer to succeed Reid, and he plans to run for minority whip again.

US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said she supports Schumer, though he might face a challenge from a female member of the Democratic conferene: Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington.

For Schumer, this is “the culmination of a ten-year climb through the leadership ranks of the Senate Democrats.”

Four major banks are threatening to withhold campaign donations to Senate Democrats in anger over Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s attacks on Wall Street.

A new gas main was being installed without city permission at the East Village building where a massive explosion and fire injured at least 25 people and left two missing.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio toured the blast site for about 30 minutes earlier today with top administration officials to assess the damage.

Buffalo made Men’s Journal’s list of America’s 50 Best Places to Live.

Sen. John Flanagan has some fans at NT2.

Rep. Pete King, who’s mulling a 2016 presidential run, released a statement accusing supporters of announced candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of hurling “vulgar, rabid and adolescent type” attacks at his office.

“There’s nothing good to come of a late budget,” said state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, though his office is prepared, should that scenario occur.

The post-budget fight over extending NYC mayoral control could get ugly.

Sen. Brad Hoylman credited singer Miley Cyrus for the $4.5 million in funding for homeless youth shelters included in this year’s state budget – the first significant increase in seven years.

A law firm headed by state Sen. Marc Panepinto has purchased a historic mansion on Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue for $1.21 million with the intent of moving into the property this summer

Syracuse firefighters will get retroactive 2 percent raises for the past two years but will begin paying 70 percent more for health care under an arbitration panel’s award issued this week.

The Greater Glens Falls Democracy for America chapter wants Cuomo to direct that all five medical marijuana growing licenses the state plans to issue be located in upstate New York.

Sen. Diane Savino did some hula hooping at Astroland’s opening day.

This year, the New York State Fair is seeking a vendor to operate a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in a dedicated space inside the International Building.

How liberals are hoping to nudge Hillary Clinton to the left.

Good-Government Groups Huddle With Cuomo’s Office

As the negotiations over the state budget appear to be winding down, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s counsel’s office met privately on Friday afternoon with several good-government advocates to discuss new outside income disclosure requirements under consideration.

The meeting was not with Cuomo himself, though the governor did make a brief appearance, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Details were scarce on what a possible agreement between Cuomo and state lawmakers might look like at this point, though advocates said they were under the impression no formal deal had been made.

“I think the issue is still open,” Horner said.

Common Cause New York’s Susan Lerner agreed.

“The ethics bill is still in progress,” Lerner said. “I don’t think we learned anything that is surprising.”

The meeting was meant more to “trade ideas back and forth,” she said.

Both Lerner and Horner declined to go into the specifics of what was discussed or what proposals the governor’s office sought to float with them.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to go into any specifics,” Lerner said.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos earlier in the day said he expected an ethics bill to be introduced as early as this evening.

Assembly Democrats last week announce they were in support of an ethics package agreed to by Cuomo that would create new disclosure requirements for lawmakers with legal clients and campaign finance while also change the travel reimbursement structure.

Senate Republicans have balked at the disclosure requirements and Cuomo has spent the last several days trying to reach an agreement that meets their concerns.

Lerner insisted no bill language was put before them in the meeting.

“We won’t possible know until we see bill language,” she said. “Things can be described and what it comes down to is drafting. Sometimes the drafting can be more expansive and helpful than the description.”

Schwartz Lands At OTG

Larry Schwartz, the former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, will become the chief strategy officer for OTG, an airport management firm, the company announced on Friday.

“I am pleased to welcome Larry Schwartz as part of the OTG team. He is a proven leader with a track record of managing complex initiatives and delivering results at the highest levels. His experience and leadership will be a tremendous asset,” said OTG CEO Rick Blatstein.

Schwartz had initially left the administration at the start of the year and was replaced with Bill Mulrow, an investment banker and a longtime figure in state political circles.

At the time, the administration said Schwartz was leaving for a private-sector job.

“I am thrilled to be joining OTG, a company that is transforming airports across the country through local dining, award-winning design, and ground-breaking technology,” Schwartz said in a statement.

OTG briefly employed another former Cuomo aide, ex-State Operations Director Howard Glaser.

However, The New York Post reported last month that Schwartz was still on the administration’s payroll and was receiving accrued vacation time.

The administration later acknowledged Schwartz was still coming to the office to help with the transition. He final day was earlier this month.

Assembly, Senate Combine For Almost $1M In Legal Bills

The state Assembly and Senate combined for nearly $1 million in legal fees last month associated with various sexual harassment scandals in one house and for representation related to the Moreland Commission To Investigate Public Corruption in the other, according to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office.

The Democratic-led Assembly was approved for $545,000 to “various recipients” in order to settle the sexual harassment lawsuit against one-time Brooklyn power broker Vito Lopez.

The former assemblyman resigned following a Joint Commission on Public Ethics report that revealed the details of abuse and harassment by Lopez directed toward his legislative staff.

Ultimately, two staffers sued Lopez and the Assembly in court, which was recently settled.

Meanwhile, the Assembly also spent $13,000 for outside legal counsel from Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in the appeals process for former Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who was accused of sending inappropriate texts and online chats with legislative employees.

Kellner did not run for re-election last year.

In the Republican-led Senate, $435,000 was approved in legal bills to Kirkland & Ellis, which is special counsel for the conference in the Moreland Commission investigation.

The commission ultimately shuttered last year following an agreement on ethics measures in the state budget.

The panel’s closure, as well as the evidence it generated, is being reviewed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Skelos: Ethics Bill Today, Assembly Making Last-Ditch DREAM Act Push

A bill that would lay out new ethics measures will likely be introduced today, while the remainder of the budget bills could be seen by Saturday night, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told reporters on Friday.

“The balance I believe will be introduced by tomorrow night,” Skelos said.

Skelos, meanwhile, criticized Assembly Democrats for making a final push on the DREAM Act by linking the proposal that would grant tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants to a Senate GOP-backed property tax relief plan.

“It’s unfortunate for people struggling upstate and on the island that they would link property tax relief to giving free tuition to people who are here illegally,” Skelos said.

Nevertheless, it appears that a final agreement is coming together as lawmakers in both chambers said this morning they expect school-aid runs to be released as early as Sunday evening or sometime next week when the budget is being voted on.

A deal on the 2015-16 state budget could be at hand by as early as this afternoon or, more likely, at some point tomorrow.

Lawmakers have left town for the most part, but Skelos said he is staying in Albany on Saturday. Assembly Democrats are due to return on Saturday morning for an optional meeting, while Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie comes back to the Capitol this afternoon.

Skelos added that there was no linking of education aid to an effort to develop teacher evaluation criteria. Senate Republicans were still pushing to have the gap elimination adjustment completely closed in education spending.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has insisted on a budget that would link school aid to the development of education reforms, including tougher criteria for evaluations of teachers as well as a school receivership plan.

“Right now, it’s the normal working through shares, working through GEA which is important to us, the Assembly wants to drive more money to New York City, we want to have it regionally balanced,” Skelos said. “That’s the normal issue that exists at this time.”

The evaluation criteria is “the final piece” Skelos said, adding that it remains unclear whether a decision would be kicked ultimately to the Board of Regents, which oversees the semi-autonomous Department of Education.

“We want to make sure it’s strong and it means something,” he said of the teacher evaluations. “The Assembly is unfortunately trying to water it down and the Assembly is, unfortunately, trying to water it down.”

More ancillary issues continue to pop up: Lawmakers in both parties are making last-minute attempts to have spending diverted from the more than $5 billion windfall surplus that Cuomo wants to spend on rural broadband expansion, shoring up the Thruway Authority’s finances and an upstate economic development competition.

The budget is due by Tuesday, the end of the state’s fiscal year. If approved by then, it would be the fifth on-time budget in a row.

On The Same Page

Why is this budget season different from all other recent budget seasons?

For starters, there has not been the much-derided three-men-in-a-room meetings that have dominated the budget discussions and the incremental coverage of the negotiations.

Instead, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has been shuttling back and forth between the governor’s office. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken the unusual step of pitching his disclosure measures to the Senate Republican conference in person and on their turf on the third floor.

Cuomo has apparently been conducting some discussions over the phones as well and has spoken with individual lawmakers in person as well in breakfast sessions.

The budget talks, in short, have been conducted seemingly in different silos: Senate Republicans talking disclosure, Assembly Democrats negotiating education reforms.

But with that new structure come some disagreement with what’s going on and what’s actually on the table. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Thursday said a minimum wage increase was out of the budget. Heastie denied that was the case.

Having budgets discussed behind closed doors with just the governor and legislative majority leaders has long been a staple of Albany and a source of derision. Former state Sen. Seymour Lachman called Albany a “Potemkin village.”

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara last month mocked the budget talks.

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has conducted a growing campaign to get herself into the room, and Cuomo would likely want to avoid the image of a black woman being locked out of the office (the Yonkers Democrat has apparently met in person with the governor, but not as part of the broader talks with the other leaders).

But increasingly this year, legislative leaders appear to be defusing their power and negotiating authority to individual members.

Rank-and-file lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate are in working groups developing policy in the budget, especially on education and ethics.

The negotiations do not appear to be falling apart like they did several times last year, and while legislative leaders may not be completely up on the minimum wage discussions, the knowledge of their members, to a greater degree than before, has been tapped into.

Burning the Weekend Oil?

From the Morning Memo:

Assembly Democrats will be returning to the Capitol today and staying through tomorrow – their effort toward trying to get agreed-on budget bills into print before midnight Saturday in order to meet the three-day aging requirement and hit the April 1 deadline.

The fact that members of the majority conference will be sicking around in Albany on a Friday night is worth noting as yet another example of just how much things have changed in the post-Sheldon Silver era.

Silver, as longtime Capitol watchers are well aware, is an observant Jew. That meant he was routinely out of pocket from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday in order to observe the Jewish sabbath known as Shabbat.

Though central staffers worked through this 24-hour pause, no significant decisions could be made until Silver checked back in on Saturday night. And, as such, the members of his conference generally took a break right along with him.

It was not unusual for complaints to be lodged over someone trying to jam the Assembly just before – or worse, during – Shabbat, knowing the speaker would have a difficult time responding until his religious obligations were fulfilled.

Silver’s replacement, Carl Heastie, is not Jewish, and so is not held to the same negotiating constraints as his predecessor. He’ll be working through Friday and into Saturday, right along with his members, who are expected to attended closed-door conferences.

During a CapTon interview last night, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle acknowledged that this is a significant shift, though he also said accommodations will be made for observant Jewish rank-and-filers – of which Silver is now one. They will not be expected to attend conference, he said, and materials will be provided to them to keep them abreast of developments in budget talks (assuming any breakthroughs are made).

Working weekends is just a small example of the seismic shift that has taken place in the Assembly.

Lobbyists, lawmakers and staffers who have long been involved in the budget back-and-forth all admit that this year is vastly different in large part due to the change in leadership style between Heastie and Silver.

Mindful of the unhappiness among rank-and-file lawmakers about Silver’s top-down management technique, Heastie has been careful to involve his conference as much as possible as he tries to negotiate his first ever budget deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

This empowerment has been good for legislators – and also for lobbyists and activists who were quick to adapt to the new reality – but it has also slowed the pace of budget talks considerably, participants admitted.

Add to that Cuomo’s newfound sensitivity to the highly public criticism from US Attorney Preet Bharara and others of the traditional “three-men-in-a-room” budget negotiation model, which has led to the governor’s unusual in-person visits to the Capitol’s third floor, and you get the diffuse and sometimes chaotic situation that we’ve witnessed over the past several days.

For a while there, proposals were falling off the table and being put back on so quickly, it was often hard to tell where things stood.

It looks like legislative leaders and the governor are making progress, however.

They’re reportedly close to an ethics disclosure deal – though it should be noted that the word “close” has been employed for a good 48 hours now. Already, good government groups are criticizing what they’ve seen, with NYPIRG’s Blair Horner publicly panning the reforms under consideration as “weak tea.”

Education continues to be a sticking point, with a lot of finger-pointing and chest-beating over the apparent loss of the DREAM Act and Education Investment Tax Credit, though several eleventh-hour compromise solutions have been floated.

The teacher evaluation system also remains an open question. The independent commission idea looks to be dead, and talk is now centered on getting the Board of Regents to propose changes before the session ends in June. Neither the Assembly Democrats nor the Senate Republicans like the idea of tying the changes to state school aid, which could force districts to hold their May budget votes without a clear picture of how much support they’ll be getting from the state.

Morelle noted last night that districts have been in this place before, thanks to Albany’s decades-long history of late budgets. No one wants to return to those bad old days, he said.

As for the governor, he made no appearances yesterday, but issued yet another lengthy statement insisting he won’t sign off on more state education aid unless the budget includes reforms that address “accountability, performance and standards.” Cuomo also said he’s standing firm on ethics reform, and called debate over the inclusion of policy proposals in the budget a “red herring.”