Zack Fink

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End of Session Slog

In the 1970 film “Gimme Shelter,” filmmakers Albert and David Maysles document the 1969 concert at Altamont which resulted in the stabbing the death of a teenager. Albert Maysles (  who just passed away earlier this year ) was the real deal. He and his brother were making documentaries long before every person with an iphone was going around telling people that they are a “documentary filmmaker.” During the 1969 concert, the Hell’s Angels biker gang was hired as security ( what could possibly go wrong?!?! ). Needless to say people were drinking and doing drugs all day, and fights flared up within the audience culminating in the stabbing death of an 18-year old who was trying to rush the stage. But the concert, and the film about it came to symbolize something much deeper than even a tragic murder. In many ways it represented the unofficial end of the peace movement. The Woodstock generation that believed in peace, love, harmony and good music ran up against the reality of bad people who kinda suck.

I enjoyed the movie when I first saw it many years ago, and there is great footage of the Rolling Stones sitting in an editing room after the fact and forlornly watching the stabbing which was caught on film. But the moment that really encapsulated the whole incident to me was a scene where the camera pans in on a very young Jerry Garcia. The Grateful Dead had been scheduled to perform but canceled after things went awry. There is Jerry, and as the camera pauses on him for a few seconds you hear him simply say, “bummer, man.” Truer words have never been spoken. Brilliant in its simplicity. That’s right Jerry, it is a “bummer.” A “bummer” indeed. That pretty much summed up the whole experience without even having to watch the whole movie.

I’m reminded of this as we head into the final weeks of session. I mean, what a year it has been. The New Legislative leaders are eager to put their stamp on the session and get some things done, and Governor Cuomo was out Sunday pushing for one of his priorities, which is the newly improved Education Investment Tax Credit. But it all feels a bit forced. As though it’s more than likely legislators will do the bare minimum then go home. Put this corruption-saturated session behind them and start fresh again next year. You feel it in the hallways up here. People making their usual enthusiastic pitches to the press sound as if their hearts aren’t really even in it. As if we are all in on the notion that not much else is going to get accomplished, so why bother?

Don’t get me wrong…Cuomo will still move to get the EITC passed ( his version of course ), but it seems unlikely the Assembly Democrats will come on board. Speaker Carl Heastie, who is already under fire from NYSUT, the state’s largest teacher’s union for a budget they felt was unfavorable, said as much last week. Heastie called the EITC “a challenge” in their conference. Some have pointed out that should the bill come to the Assembly floor there would be enough Republican votes to help pass it, but Heastie shot that down. Cuomo had originally linked EITC to the Dream Act, so there is also concern among Democrats that the Governor will drop his push for the Dream Act and instead try to create some kind of scholarship program within existing CUNY and SUNY programs. You know, The Dream Act…but not really.

Newly elected Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan issued a press release yesterday laying out his priorities for the final weeks of session ( how refreshing is that, by the way?? We usually didn’t hear much from Dean Skelos when it came to outlining the things he actually wanted ). Flanagan would like to see the tax cap made permanent, which seems odd since veterans up here are often proud of explaining why they NEVER make anything permanent up here. That way, each experiment with a new policy can be evaluated over a set number of years then renewed piecemeal if warranted. ( That also helps keep the ultimate power up here, where Albany lawmakers want it ). Flanagan also said he’d like to work with Cuomo to establish a uniform policy for sexual assault on college campuses. Now, this is an area where something may actually get done. A few hurdles to overcome, notably in the Assembly ( once again ), which didn’t see any need to rush it through before budget.

There is also the specter out there of comprehensive criminal justice reform. Some speculated that Governor Cuomo was trying to pull PBA President Pat Lynch onto his side to support whatever controversial reforms he tries push through on police oversight as part of a larger criminal justice reform package when he suddenly embraced the 75%-of-salary-payout for officers permanently injured in the line of duty last week. Remember…conspiracy theories abound up here for a REASON.

So, to sum up…we will have to wait and see what happens with all of this, and how much of a stomach the leaders  ( with their brand new dynamic! ) have for horse trading in the final days of session. Clearly they all want something to take home and brag about before summer break. Otherwise, this whole session could pretty much be sized up as a bit of “bummer.”

The Fallout

A friend of mine is an attorney who puts together corporate deals. Lots of deals in the business world get proposed, but many of them fall by the wayside due to a variety of factors. Sometimes it is painfully obvious right from the get go that a deal will never come to fruition. But will the attorney ever tell the client that? Absolutely not. The lawyers keep billing to get all the work done in time, and they allow the client to come to that conclusion on their own. Needless to say, the client is often the last person to figure it out.

I was reminded of this anecdote from within the legal profession when reporters finally came face to face with Dean Skelos Tuesday outside the Capitol. Just a day after being charged with six counts of federal corruption, Skelos was absolutely defiant. They say the stages of grief are predictable in almost every case, and it was apparent to some that Skelos had moved beyond denial into the all-too-common anger phase. He lectured reporters about “showing respect for law enforcement,” since people tried to talk to him at a ceremony honoring police. He chastised the media for not being better parents, and he referred to the complaint against him as a press release. Yes, if Skelos’ days are numbered as leader of the Senate, he appears to be the only one who doesn’t know it. But I noticed something else also. He reminded me a bit of my grandfather in his waning days. Once such a powerful and even intimidating figure. But as he got older I would occasionally look into his eyes and see vulnerability, fear and even confusion. It was in some respects, very sad.

On Wednesday night, Senate Republicans sent out a press release announcing that 16 Senators “strongly believe” that Skelos should remain Majority leader. Insiders are telling me Skelos might have been better off not sending this at all if he wants to continue to fight for his job. 16 out of a body of 33? That hardly sounds like a mandate. It’s barely half of the Republicans who vote for him. Sources say there is already a scramble behind closed doors to replace him. Upstaters want one of their own, and naturally the downstate folks want someone from their region. But at the end of the day, there are 20 upstate Republicans and just 12 from downstate. That may make the decision for them. In addition, traditionally the Majority leader has shifted between upstate and downstate to placate both blocs. In simple english, It’s upstate’s turn.

Here is why GOP insiders are turning on Skelos. It’s going to be very hard to claim the mantle of reform when one’s leader is facing these kinds of charges. The seat of Majority Leader does not belong to Dean Skelos, or any one individual for that matter. It belongs to the people of the state of New York. It’s an honor and a privilege to sit in that seat. And whoever does needs to have his or her priorities in order. That means an allegiance to the taxpayers of the state, then the party in control and finally one’s self. Insiders believe Skelos has those priorities in exactly the opposite order. Forget for a minute that the people deserve a Majority Leader free from the compromise of having an ethical cloud hanging over him, but what about the Republican party? It puts all Republican Senators in a  very difficult position when they are asked to pledge their allegiance to the leader. Republicans just picked up seats in some swing districts. Do they really want to lose those seats because the members were asked to take a loyalty test for their Skelos?

Dean Skelos may very well be innocent as he claims. Unfortunately, that is no longer the point. What Skelos and his supporters are asking  members of the Senate and the entire state of New York to do is give him the uncompromising benefit of the doubt and assume that Preet Bharara is crazy and Skelos is 100% right. That’s an impossible ask right now. Bharara has a lot to prove, but that’s his burden, not ours. In the meantime, GOP sources believe Skelos needs to do the righteous and magnanimous thing by stepping aside until guilt or innocence can be established in a court of law.

I have always personally admired Skelos with his dashing good looks, and flowing mane of gray, swoopy hair. He looks like a King from some fictional land that still uses middle ages technology to fight wars. Think Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings, or some other fantasy world that self-proclaimed nerds spend all day discussing on the internet. Unfortunately for Skelos, this is not a world where the King makes his own rules. It’s a world of checks and balances. It’s hardly a perfect system, but we need to put or faith in it for now.

NYCHA Money…With Some New and Improved Strings

If you work up here in Albany, you’ve probably heard it a million times, “The City is a creature of The State.”Albany giveth, and Albany taketh away. The State of New York could govern the city of New York if it chose to do so, and arguably did during the financial crisis in the 1970’s with the financial control board.

But that doesn’t mean the city has to like it. Sometimes the city stomps it’s feet and holds it’s breath and it STILL doesn’t get what it wants from Albany. See the West Side Stadium, and congestion pricing to name just a few. Then there is the dynamic between our current Mayor, Bill de Blasio, and our current Governor Andrew Cuomo. This has truly taken the constant back and forth between the city and state to new comedic heights.

Let’s circle back to that New York City Housing Authority money you likely first read about here. The State has agreed to give NYCHA $100 million in the upcoming fiscal year budget for repairs and improvements. There is broad agreement that the money is needed, but there was much dispute over how it should be administered and distributed. Much to the de Blasio Administration’s chagrin, the state will provide the funding, but not through a direct appropriation to NYCHA. Instead, all the money will be overseen by the state through DHCR which will strictly control which projects get approved and how each and every penny gets spent. Needless to say this did not go over well with the de Blasio Administration which argued NYCHA knows what it’s needs are and how better to repair the buildings it is currently charged with maintaining. No dice. The money is controlled by the state.

Well now, there is yet another layer to this. According to the just released bill language, the New York City Comptroller is mandated to conduct an audit of the management processes and procedures of NYCHA. So, in other words, the de Blasio Administration gets the money, but not without their sometimes other rival Scott Stringer poking around and looking for problems.

The bill reads (SIC),

“…and provided further that the comptroller of the city of new york shall immediately commence an audit of the new york city housing authority management and contracting process for repairs and maintenance and make recommendation on how to improve the process.”

According to sources, Governor Cuomo read this story in the Daily News about NYCHA not always having the best track record when it comes to spending money, and insisted strong controls be instilled in any appropriation that goes out the Capitol door to the city of New York for NYCHA. I’m sure it has nothing to do with poking de Blasio in the belly with a sharp stick. And frankly, I’m disgusted that you would even ask such a thing.

***Update*** IDC leader Jeff Klein, who fought to get the $100 million into the budget issued a statement through spox Candice Giove which reads,

“Senator Klein is proud that he delivered $100 million in funding to make critical repairs to NYCHA buildings. Equally important to the Senator is oversight of the state’s investment to ensure fiscal responsibility.”

A Few of My Favorite Things…

Golf with my buddies, and drinkin’ cape codders

Private plane parking, right at MacArthur

Yachting on Sunday without any strings

These are a few of my favorite things!

 

I gotta say…even for Albany, last night’s move was bold. After pairing down the budget to keep much of the controversial policy items out, including a minimum wage hike it takes enormous gall to then vote for a tax break for the 1%. It was a gangsta move in my book. Nevermind how this “looks” to the “public.” Pshaw! We are gonna vote for this even if it gives you material about us tolling the bell for billionaires for the rest of the session! Asked to defend this action during a gaggle yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said ( and I swear to you I have not edited this in the slightest, this is actually the verbatim ),

“We felt that it’s important, especially with the state that we have, with all our natural resources, that people be able to create jobs here in New York State.”

That’s some Sarah Palin stuff right there.

One insider suggested to me that Cuomo allowed this tax exemption to go through in order to draw attention away from his radical education agenda. Not sure I believe that, but let’s be honest…the changes the Governor is looking to make are huge. I say “looking to make,” because the bill has not hit the Assembly floor for a vote where it’s chances of quick passage remain murky at best. The Governor is in essence undermining the teacher’s union. Watering down their collective bargaining rights by putting into state law the mandatory dismissal of teacher’s who are rated ineffective. That’s a major departure from where things currently stand. Right now, it is very difficult to fire teachers. Especially those with tenure. Cue the numerous tab stories about “rubber rooms.” If Cuomo gets his way, the dynamic will be permanently altered. I don’t want to compare this to what Scott walker did in Wisconsin, but it’s the New York State Democratic-internecine-warfare-politics version of that.

The question, of course, is will the Assembly Dems go for it. Speaker Carl Heastie has a lot on the line here. It’s his first budget, and there is no question that he has been far more inclusive of the conference when it comes to crafting the bill language. The problem with that, is that it slooooows things down. No good budget ever gets negotiated by committee. At some point, it’s gotta get locked down. On the other hand, it’s not worth it to Heastie to demand a vote on radical changes to something as sacred as education if it means the loss of his speakership.

In conclusion, we may have to wait and see how this day shapes up. Hopefully we can quote Ice Cube at midnight by singing “Today was a good day.”

 

NYCHA Funding War

In yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of OneUpsManship between Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, funding for the New York City Housing Authority is now the source of an intense behind the scenes fight. Sources say the figure that has been agreed upon is $100 million in the state budget for NYCHA. But it is how that money is administered which is the source of the dispute.

NYCHA hasn’t received state money in years, and serious repairs and capital investments are needed to improve the aging housing stock, some of which was built for veterans returning from the second world war. According to the state’s appropriation currently being hashed out in the budget, the state would control the money through the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. DHCR would then approve projects and allow the state to take an active role in determining how finite resources are spent.

Mayor de Blasio is livid over this, I am told. He believes NYCHA knows it’s own housing stock best, and NYCHA should administer its own money to determine how and where to spend it based on greatest need. Governor Cuomo isn’t having it. People familiar with the discussion taking place among staff between Albany and the City say NYCHA has had a serious accountability problem. That includes money it was given to install security cameras in the mid-2000s, that it is just getting around to spending now. A person with direct knowledge of the less-than-cordial conversation taking place says,

“NYCHA has not been a good steward of the public’s money in the past. There’s no question that the state wants to invest in NYCHA, but we want to do it in a fiscally responsible way.”

***UPDATE*** In response, NYCHA Spox Jean Weinberg says,

“It’s vital that Albany bureaucracy and politics do not stand in the way of critical funding for NYCHA residents. There has been a major erosion of support for public housing from the State over the last few decades. That’s why we’ve asked the State to commit $300 million — that the City will match — to ensure NYCHA can make the necessary repairs to its aging housing stock and provide residents with the housing they deserve.”

 

Capitol Observations

A mountain of criticism is building about the budget negotiation process, which usually boils down to “three men in a room,” but not this year.

Normally, we reporters spend countless hours this time of year staking out leaders meetings that take place inside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. That hasn’t happened since early March.

Instead, the governor has shifted strategies. There he was coming up to the Assembly chamber to announce a two-way deal with Speaker Carl Heastie on ethics reform. Then on Tuesday, he took a walk through the Senate to talk ethics some more with Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Individual leaders have been in and out of his office all week, and there have been numerous private one-on-one phone conversations.

Asked if this was a better way to negotiate the budget, an insider told me bluntly: “Well, no.” But, I suppose US Attorney Preet Bharara’s fun-making, and all the heat about not including Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the talks may have finally had an impact.

The good news is that it sounds like the budget is much closer to coming to fruition. That is due partly to the end of negotiations-by-fiat by Cuomo. For example, on education, there are discussions about creating what is known as a Berger Commission to come up with a system for evaluations.

Assembly Democrats say Cuomo has backed off his initial insistence that evaluations be based 50 percent on standardized tests. Often in this building, the negotiators like to take ideas for change or reform, wrap them up in a box, cover them with tissue paper then put them in an even bigger box. What they are actually doing is pushing the tough choices down the road to be decided another day.

That way, the budget doesn’t need to be held up, and they can try and reach a deal later in the session. If they can’t, so be it. Much less of a mushroom cloud then would be a late budget. So, why put so many policy ideas into the budget in the first place? Cuomo said as much yesterday. When he doesn’t put things in, he takes heat for not making them a priority. He has to show he cares about them, so they can fall away like bargaining chips the minute they look like they may prevent an on-time budget. On-time budgets poll well, after all. Fighting teachers does not.

“Now people will say, ‘If he doesn’t put it in the budget, he doesn’t really care about it,'” Cuomo said. “That’s what’s happened over the years. And if it’s not in the budget, then he doesn’t mean it. So, the budget has become expansive from that point of view.”

On ethics reform, Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco says the leaders and the governor are close to an agreement on disclosure of clients and outside income. DeFran has been part of a small working group that has been specifically tasked with solving this issue for the Senate. He declined to give details, because they haven’t seen anything in writing, and often what they agree upon orally then looks very different in draft language.

“What we discussed today is a possible solution to the disclosure issue,” the senator said. “We still need something in writing to make sure that what everybody thinks – they are not disagreeing on. It is not a situation that some thought it was that is going to blow up an on time budget. That’s not the situation.”

Again I have’t seen the details, but I’d be willing to bet disclosure ends up looking like “disclosure lite,” with some kind of weird zig-zaggy process for how sensitive information can still be kept hidden from public view. We shall see.

In response to DeFran’s comments, Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa told us:

“What’s being reported that Senator DeFrancisco is describing is not disclosure, it is current law. As the Governor has said, he will not enact a budget that doesn’t include an ethics package with real disclosure of legislator’s outside income, and he meant it.”

Capitol Tidbits…

Since resigning the speakership earlier this year, Assemblyman Sheldon Silver has kept a low profile. He quietly joined the Education Committee in the Assembly, and then last week he introduced a bill – his first as a rank-and-file member.

I caught up with the former speaker as he chewed on cashew nuts outside the Assembly chamber earlier today. Silver said his bill would provide a maximum $500 credit to parents who pay tuition for parochial or private schools. Sources say Silver has been trying to rally support for the bill from other members in the chamber. Silver views it as a solid alternative to the discussion taking place about the Education Investment Tax credit; which was dropped from the budget earlier this week.

“The idea is to help parents who pay tuition,” Silver said. “It gives THEM the credit directly instead of some well-heeled donor. It’s an alternative to the EITC.”

It was a very Shelly moment.

Assemblyman Keith Wright then walked over to us, and explained to Silver that he and I attended the same high school. (Just a quick hint – the assemblyman and I are not the same age).

Silver paused a moment, reached into his cup for another cashew, popped it into his mouth and murmured through a wry smile: “I’m not impressed.” Then he turned his back and slowly sauntered away.

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On Saturday, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio attended the SOMOS conference here in Albany. I had the distinct pleasure of driving up here to cover it. Last month, when de Blasio attended caucus weekend, which I also covered, he made very little news. But on Saturday night. he not only took the stage at precisely his allocated time to speak, which was 8 p.m., he actually took a shot at Gov. Andrew Cuomo on education.

Cuomo has repeatedly been pointing out that certain schools are “failing,” and therefore need to be taken over by the state in some form of receivership. The mayor strongly disagrees with this move, and has been voicing his criticism – in increasingly shapening tones – for some time now.

“Don’t call our children failing or our schools failing if you haven’t even tried to invest in them,” de Blasio said at Somos.

Today, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee, took issue with that. Surprisingly, the Queens Democrat defended the governor, with whom she – not to mention many of her assembly majority conference colleagues – have not been seeing eye-to-eye on a lot of topics this budget season.

“The mayor doesn’t help the city of New York when he does it in outside speeches on Saturday when they know discussions are happening,” Nolan said. “The mayor would be better off leaving it to his professional people, like (NYC Schools Chancellor) Carmen Farina. I think the governor has made a good faith effort to respond to the city’s concerns about struggling schools. And if I were the mayor, I’d probably just say ‘thank you.'”

Perhaps there is still some lingering anger there over the mayor’s support for Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie over Nolan to succeed Silver as speaker earlier this year. But that would be crazy, right? Because politicians never hold grudges.

***UPDATE*** Mayor de Blasio’s people point out that the mayor was specifically referring to the state’s continued failure to properly fund schools under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. That decision by the state’s highest court has been ignored for years, and advocates for public education argue that is precisely why certain schools continue to fail.

It’s a fair point.

 

Education Matters

The conversation on education reform in the state Budget appears to have shifted. Sources say last night Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a long talk about some of the governor’s policy proposals and now, finally, there seems to be some movement.

Assembly Democrats conferenced the proposed changes this afternoon, which include taking charter schools out of the discussion. Cuomo had wanted to raise the cap to allow more charters, but as of now that will be taken up at another time – likely later in the session.

The governor also appears to be backing away from his insistence that “failing” schools be placed into a receivership. Democrats staunchly oppose this. Weakening teacher tenure is also on the chopping block – (Cuomo had wanted to make it harder for teachers to gain tenure) – and a formula for teacher evaluations is still being worked out.

Democrats described the overall mood on budget talks as “very different” from the start of this session. No longer is Cuomo taking a “storm-the-beach” approach on his controversial education reforms. Many of those ideas have now been “uncoupled” from the revenue appropriations they were attached to. That paves the way for compromise – not to mention an on-time budget = at least within the the world of Democrats who had loathed the governor’s approach, accusing him of being a bully.

But of course, Republicans still need to come around on ethics if the budget is actually going to be on time.

So, what changed? Well, a couple of things. For one, sources say Cuomo was losing the war against teachers.

First there was the poll last week showing his approval rating at the lowest it has ever been. Then there was the Siena poll that showed the public isn’t really with him on this one. Finally, there are the teachers unions, NYSUT and UFT, whose members successfully painted Cuomo as the enemy of overworked and underpaid teachers.

From the campaign to demonstrate he has spent no time in schools since taking office, to the billboards on the Thruway telling him that he needs to listen to to teachers, it all adds up to a losing battle for the governor.

Not for nothing, but if you are going to take on an entrenched group like the teachers union in this state, you gotta be ready to really go to war. That includes a TV ad blitz, which was noticeably absent in this particular fight.

Cuomo’s buddy across the Hudson, Gov. Chris Christie, successfully turned the public against the NJEA in New Jersey, but he did so after first coming into office in 2010 when his political clout was at its highest. It was also during the great recession when antipathy toward public unions living large on the public dime was at an all-time high.

Then there is the ethics reform piece. Last week, Cuomo successfully pulled Speaker Heastie into the fold on ethics when the Democratic duo announced a two-way agreement that left Senate Republicans on the sidelines. This was immortalized by the hug-heard-round the world.

(This photo appears to have been taken after the two leaders won their field hockey game. They then apparently went back to the mansion and watched “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and shared a good cry. Next week, it’s an all “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Steel Magnolias” marathon. BTW – I’m totally kidding about everything I just wrote in parenthesis…Heastie actually HATES “Steel Magnolias.”)

Once the governor had the Assembly Democrats on his side on ethics reform, he was able to squeeze the Republicans a bit. But, of course, no one gets everything they want. And to bring the Dems on board for ethics meant sacrificing something on education – an issue of massive importance in the Assembly majority conference. Heastie and his members couldn’t live with what Cuomo wanted in terms of ed reform. Cuomo needed ethics to be his top priority following the arrest of former Speaker Sheldon Silver.

It stands to reason that NO ethics reform really has any teeth unless lawmakers and the governor are willing to have the big conversation, which is banning ALL outside income and making the Legislature full time – with a significant pay raise, as good government groups have proposed. But as the great Nick Reisman noted earlier, that pay increase commission Cuomo gave lip service to all those months ago is apparently also out of the budget along with the Dream Act and the EITC.

Poacher’s Paradise

Guess who is staffing up? Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, that’s who! Hochul who recently broke her arm on the ski slopes of Lake Placid, inadvertently becoming the biggest news item to materialize out of Governor Cuomo’s Winter-sports-in-the-Adirondacks-are-great promotion, hired former IDC staffer Jason Elan, which my fine bureau-mate and colleague Nick Reisman was first to report. Now, she has her sights on someone else, and it is…drum roll…Jeffrey Pearlman who is currently Chief of Staff to the NYS Democratic Conference.

Pearlman is an Andrea Stewart-Cousins loyalist dating back to the 2000’s when she ran against Nicholas Spano. According to a source, Pearlman was not totally thrilled with his current job ( being in the minority can be frustrating, I suppose ) which might explain the less than glamorous move to COS for Hochul. Pearlman is however, a very capable guy who knows election law inside and out. The Senate’s loss is the Cuomo Admin’s gain. He is expected to transfer out after budget.

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Coupla other little tidbits that may or may not be of interest to those of you who work in the Capitol. Former Assembly Speaker is moving his seat. After losing the Speakership, Silver was given a desk on the north side of the Assembly chamber, where he took some time on day one to examine his drawer. Now, he will move to a new seat currently occupied by Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner of Saratoga Springs. According to a source, freshman like Woerner “don’t usually get” those coveted aisle seats. No news yet on where she will be moving. Silver has also officially joined the Education Committee in the Assembly. I’d tell you where they meet, but I can’t because the meetings aren’t well publicized.

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Finally, Governor Cuomo has been meeting with the various Assembly delegations. He had breakfast with Manhattan members yesterday, and dinner with the Bronx last night. Yep, Not all that interesting in and of itself, so sorry about that.

 

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.