Nick Reisman

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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.

Heastie: Minimum Wage Hike Still Under Discussion

While Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos earlier on Thursday said a minimum wage increase isn’t in the cards for the state budget, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters it remains on the table in the negotiations.

“That’s not my understanding,” Heastie said after emerging from a closed-door conference with Democratic members. “We continue to press people in this state need the minimum wage. We continue that debate.”

Assembly Democrats this afternoon huddled to discuss Cuomo’s education reform proposals, which he is linking to approving a boost of education aid in the state.

Lawmakers on Thursday confirmed the education commission initially floated that would develop criteria has been abandoned, and lawmakers are now discussing having the Board of Regents be charged with developing evaluation criteria.

“We are still discussing education, all the different ways to go,” Heastie said. “At this point, there’s no agreement in anything.”

Likewise, Cuomo is yet to reach an agreement with Senate Republicans on disclosure of legal clients in the state budget, which is due Tuesday.

Heastie said the ethics debate remains “an open subject.”

“I had a conversation about it today with the governor and he’s trying to talk to the Senate,” Heastie said.

Cuomo himself released a lengthy statement reiterating that he won’t back a budget deal without ethics or approve a significant increase in education aid without reform measures for schools included.

The governor also defended his decision to tie so much policy to spending in the budget as well.

“As much as the governor are working toward an agreement, that’s a place where we disagree,” Heastie said. “We don’t believe a lot of policy should be tied up in appropriations.

Despite the posturing, all sides appeared close to reaching an agreement within the next 24 to 48 hours.

Lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly are due to return Friday to have more conversations on the budget. The Assembly is also due to be in Albany for a rare Saturday meeting on the spending plan as well.

An agreement could come as late as Saturday night in order to have measures age without a message of necessity from Cuomo and be voted on Monday and Tuesday.

Cuomo: Education And Ethics Remain The Top Priorities

The debate over policy being included in the state budget is a “red herring,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a lengthy statement on the budget talks released Thursday afternoon.

“The truth is that every budget boils down to two essential issues: How much money are we spending and how are we spending it?” Cuomo said. “There is no financial judgment that can be made without a corresponding policy judgment. Indeed many of the Legislature’s proposals in their one house budgets have related policy proposals.”

Cuomo has linked policy to spending in previous budget proposals.

But his $142 billion spending plan was seen as an even greater amount of policy linkage to appropriations this year, especially on education issues, where a $1.1 billion increase in aid is tied to reform proposals.

Meanwhile, Cuomo sought to yoke ethics measures dealing disclosure and campaign finance laws to appropriations in his 30-day budget amendments, that lawmakers declined to introduce.

Governors have broader powers over the budget process in Albany and Cuomo sought to use that leverage to achieve some policy victories.

In the statement, Cuomo reiterated his top priorities in the budget remain education and ethics reform.

Cuomo continues to insist that he won’t agree to a budget that does not include “real ethics reform” or allow a “dramatic increase in education aid” without reform measures.

Cuomo lays out those reform measures in education as being ones that deal with “accountability, performance and standards.”

On ethics, Cuomo says ethics must be considered in the budget, adding that client disclosure issues have plagued Albany for more than a generation.

“These two issues remain my highest priorities in this budget,” Cuomo says of ethics and education. “They are transformative changes.”

Currently, Assembly Democrats are meeting behind closed doors discussing education measures in the budget.

A previously proposed education commission is no longer part of the budget talks, lawmakers confirmed. Now, lawmakers are discussing having the Board of Regents potentially consider reform recommendations later this year.

Here is Cuomo’s full statement:

Cuomo Statement by Nick Reisman

Skelos: ‘Tremendous Progress’ Toward Ethics Deal

There’s been “tremendous progress” on reaching an ethics agreement between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republicans in the Senate, Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Thursday said.

“I think we’re making tremendous progress with the ethics legislation, cooperating with the governor, working with him,” Skelos said.

Cuomo has already come to an agreement with Assembly Democrats on an ethics package, which includes new disclosure requirements of legal clients, per diem reform and campaign finance measures.

Senate Republicans, however, have raised concerns with Cuomo over the disclosure piece and have been negotiating the finer points of Cuomo’s proposal for the last several days.

The budget is due to be passed by Tuesday, the last day of the state’s fiscal year.

“I believe we’re going to have an ethics deal by March 31,” Skelos said.

Cuomo has said he won’t sign off on a budget without ethics legislation included in the final agreement.

Still, major aspects of the $142 billion budget appeared to be closing down on Thursday as lawmakers reach key agreements or abandon more contentious policy matters to later in the session.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie emerged from a closed-door meeting with Cuomo to lawmakers were “still negotiating” before then ducking into a conference with majority Democrats.

Democrats are yet to come to an agreement with Cuomo on education reform measures he is seeking and the governor continues to link a funding increase to his policy proposals.

Meanwhile, Skelos gave mixed signals on whether an education commission, which would be charged with developing criteria for teacher evaluations and potentially other reforms, will still be included in the final deal.

“There’s some sort of a thing like that,” Skelos said. “I don’t know if the commission is still there.”

Skelos said Republicans are “in sync” with the governor on education issues, but no three-way agreement has been reached.

Senate Republicans, however, have raised concerns with how more than $5 billion of a windfall surplus should be spent.

Cuomo has proposed a variety of avenues to spend the money, including directing money to the Thruway Authority, expanding access to broadband Internet service and an economic development competition for upstate regions.

“This should be linked to economic development and job creation,” Skelos said. “That’s my concern. This is not CHIPS funding that goes to the local communities to help the superintendents of highways to repair roads. This has to go to create jobs.”

As for the upstate competition — a $1.5 billion program — Skelos raised concerns with the winners and losers aspect.

“We’re not opposed to that investment upstate. What we don’t think is there should be three winners and four losers,” he said, adding, “It shouldn’t be region against region. it should be project against project.”

The lowest award possible in the program would be higher than what winners received in the economic development council awards.

Minimum Wage Hike Falls From Budget, Skelos Says

An increase in the state’s minimum wage has been dropped from the state budget, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Thursday morning confirmed.

Speaking with reporters outside of his office, Skelos said the debate over the wage hike had devolved into a “bidding war” thanks to competing proposals from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“It seems like somebody says $10.50, then somebody says $13 and then de Blasio says $15 and it’s just like a bidding war without any real thought process,” Skelos said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had proposed in January a minimum wage hike of $11.50 for New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in the state. De Blasio, in a separate proposal, wanted a minimum wage of $13 for the city, indexed to the rate of inflation.

Skelos had not been enthused over the initial wage hike to begin with, but today said there should be discussions such as workers compensation and regulatory reform with any minimum wage conversation as well.

“There are a lot of issues that should be part of that, rather than a bidding war like how far I can go,” Skelos said.

The minimum wage in New York is currently $8.75 and due to increase to $9 by the end of the year.

Minimum wage and anti-poverty advocates had pushed Cuomo to include a new minimum wage increase in the state budget this year after they were dissatisfied with a deal struck two years ago on an increase, which they said was too slow.

Stewart-Cousins: Don’t Hold School Aid ‘Hostage’

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Thursday weighed in on the education funding discussions in the state budget, saying in a statement school aid should not be “held hostage” in the ongoing effort instill education reforms.

“Funding for New York State schools should not be held hostage due to the ongoing debate over how best to reform our education system. Our state’s students need help and we have a responsibility to ensure their schools are provided necessary funding immediately. Any delays or excuses to avoid adequate funding will simply hurt our students and that is unacceptable.”

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi weighed in on Twitter in response to Stewart-Cousins: “More & more money w/ no reforms keeps special interests happy, but does nothing to help kids trapped in failing schools.”

There is talk of forming an education commission to develop some of the reform criteria, including new standards for teacher evaluations.

Cuomo wants to boost education aid by as much as $1.1 billion, with the funding strings attached to backing the reforms.

Lawmakers this month backed a $1.4 billion hike in education aid.

Both the Senate and Assembly are due to leave Albany later today after the scheduled session, but could return at some point this weekend if a framework deal on the budget is reached.

Updated: The education reform group StudentsFirstNY responds.

“Students in New York schools should not be held hostage by legislators kowtowing to the special interests that have created our broken education system,” said Tenicka Boyd, the group’s Director of Organizing. “Senator Stewart-Cousins and her colleagues should immediately pass the Governor’s budget and give New York kids the funding and school reform they deserve. Her suggestion that we should turn a blind eye while the system fails another generation of children is unconscionable.”