Property Tax Cap Extension Debate Continues

From the Morning Memo:

The state’s cap on property tax increases doesn’t expire until next year, but some lawmakers at the Capitol are already looking to make the measure first passed in 2011 a permanent one.

“Making the property tax permanent is in the best interests of the taxpayers and the people of the state of New York.

The state Senate on Wednesday voted for a bill that would create a permanent extension of the cap, which limits local levy increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation.

It’s a key provision this year, especially for upstate and suburban Republican lawmakers.

“Keeping property taxes down has been a priority for me in the Senate and something I’ll continue to advocate for,” said Sen. Patty Ritchie, a North County Republican.

The drive to make the tax cap permanent, through a straight extension, is also backed by statewide and regional business groups, who argue it will bring a new level of certainty to businesses that want to settle in New York.

But it’s a different case in the Assembly, led by Democrats, who question the need to make the cap a permanent fixture.

“I’m actually a big fan of sun setting more legislation than not simply because as circumstances change it gives you an opportunity to make adjustments and amendments as time goes on,” Majority Leader Joe Morelle said.

And Democrats in the chamber are suggesting that some changes could be made and school aid should be boosted as well to help districts budget within the cap.

“I think that the cap has been an effective tool, but we need to make sure we do the rest of here at the state, make sure that critical state aid is going to our schools, make sure they’re properly funded,” said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, a Schenectady Democrat.

There is a growing drive from local government advocates as well to make some changes to the cap that could be coupled with mandate relief or even a boost in state aid.

For now, lawmakers have said the discussions do not center around linking the cap’s renewal to mandate relief provisions.

The vast majority of school districts this week had their budgets approved by voters and nearly 99 percent all budgeted within the legal limit. An override is possible, but only with a 60 percent majority.

While the cap doesn’t expire this year, it is linked to rent control regulations for New York City, which are due to lapse next month. Extending rent control is a top priority for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

“The Senate has a list, we have a list and where we can come to an agreement on some of the things we want, that’s what usually happens,” Speaker Carl Heastie said Wednesday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo backs a permanent property tax cap, which as a signature economic achievement from his first term.

Lawsky To Depart DFS Next Month

As expected, Financial Services Superintendent Ben Lawsky will step down from the post he has held for the last four years, he announced in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.

Lawsky, a protege of Gov. Andrew Cuomo who worked with him in the attorney general’s office, had been rumored to leave the job for the last several weeks.

He is now expected to depart in late June, his office said.

“I am deeply proud of the work our team has done building this new agency and helping strengthen oversight of the financial markets,” Lawsky said in a statement. “We have assembled a great team at NYDFS and I have full confidence that the critical work of this agency will continue seamlessly moving forward. I also want to thank Governor Cuomo for the trust he showed in appointing me to this position and for providing us with the opportunity to serve the people of New York. On a personal level, I am deeply grateful to the Governor, who has been an incredible mentor and amazing friend to me over the past eight years.”

His departure makes him one of the most high profile figures from Cuomo’s first term to leave the administration following the governor’s re-election last year.

Administration churn and turnover, especially in the aftermath of an election, is not unusual.

Lawsky was the first superintendent of the newly formed Department of Financial Services, which was created out of a merger from the departments of banking and insurance. The new department, at the same time, raised eyebrows with its purview seen as overlapping, if not competing with, the attorney general’s office.

Lawsky’s tenure was marked by high-profile settlements with major financial institutions worth billions of dollars.

Updated: The Times reported this afternoon that Lawsky is starting his own legal and consulting firm. Capital reports that it sought to confirm Lawsky’s exit, but the superintendent himself said on Tuesday he was yet to determine what his next step will be.

The Final Countdown

From the Morning Memo:

Counting today, there are 15 days remaining in the 2015 legislative session, and things are heating up, with the Senate and Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo starting to lay out their respective agendas for the mad dash to the finish of what has been a very rocky year in Albany.

Yesterday, new Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan released a list of his end-of-session priorities, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo did a whirlwind tour of four Brooklyn churches and a yeshiva to tout his latest version of the Education Investment Tax Credit, now known (with some additions and changes) as the Parental Choice in Education Act.

Also over the weekend, Flanagan introduced a bill that would make the 2 percent tax cap permanent – a top priority for the Senate GOP’s conservative and business allies. The Assembly Democrats, meanwhile, introduced a bill to extend the New York City rent laws for another four years and make them more tenant-friendly.

These two issues are linked, though the rent laws are scheduled to expire next month, and the cap won’t do so until next year.

When he ascended to the speaker’s post back in February, Carl Heastie said renewing and strengthening the city’s rent laws would be his “No. 1 priority” this session.

The “renewing” part is probably not going to be a problem with the Senate Republicans. With the exception of two lone NYC lawmakers – Sens. Marty Golden, of Brooklyn; and Andrew Lanza, of Staten Island – the members of the GOP conference don’t have many (if any) constituents directly impacted by the laws.

But they did collectively benefit from well over $1 million from REBNY during the 2014 elections, which spent big to help the Republicans re-take the majority with an eye toward getting a clean extension – in other words, no pro-tenant changes – of the rent laws this year.

Also up for discussion is the controversial 421-a tax abatement program, which has been a boon to big NYC developers, who, in turn, have given big bucks across the board in Albany.

With the role played by developer Glenwood Management in the federal corruption scandals of both ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, advocates are hoping some rent law reforms could be had.

But the fact that Flanagan did not mention the issue in his priority list statement released yesterday was not a good sign, though he has said since ascending to the majority leader’s post that he expects both the rent laws and New York City mayoral control, which is also set to sunset next month, will likely be extended before the session’s scheduled end on June 17.

The Senate Republicans are likely going to push for unspecified changes to mayoral control to improve transparency and accountability, which is not going to sit too terribly well with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies in the Assembly Democratic conference.

Flanagan did include “common sense” reforms to the SAFE Act on his to do list – a nod to the conservative upstaters who did not support him during the battle to replace Skelos as leader because of his “yes” vote on the controversial gun control law.

The likelihood of the governor and Democrat-controlled Assembly signing off on any SAFE Act modifications is fairly low.

One conservative Republican lawmaker, Assemblyman Bill Nojay, of Livingston County, is suggesting Flanagan hold the rent laws hostage in exchange for SAFE Act reforms. But that seems like an extreme, playing-with-fire sort of approach that would not benefit the newly-minted majority leader – especially not as he looks toward what will be a difficult election year in 2016.

The Senate Republicans and the governor are on the same page – at least conceptually – when it comes to the education tax credit. This issue creates a problem for Heastie, who used to be a sponsor of legislation to enact the credit, but took his name off that – and all other bills – when he became speaker.

Mike Whyland, spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, is quoted in the NY Times this morning that there has “not been sufficient support” in the conference for the tax credit, though some members – especially in poorer, urban areas – have been under intense pressure to back it.

Whyland also said Heastie would not allow the tax credit to be linked to passage of any other legislation – like, say, mayoral control of the New York City school system, which some are suggesting could be linked to raising the charter school cap, another issue pushed without success by Cuomo during the budget battle.

Cuomo tried unsuccessfully during the budget to link the education tax credit, which is a problem in the Assembly majority conference; to the DREAM Act, which is a problem in the Senate majority conference. Playing the two sides against one another didn’t work in that instance. We’ll see what ends up in the so-called, end-of-session “big ugly.”

The Assembly Democrats and Senate GOP are in agreement – again, conceptually – when it come to revisiting the education reforms, especially the teacher performance evaluation system, they agreed to in the budget deal. This is likely to be an uphill battle with Cuomo, for whom the education reforms were a bright spot in a budget that saw many of his policy priorities shunted aside.

Flanagan Calls For ‘Common Sense’ SAFE Act Changes

Less than a week ager his election as majority leader of the state Senate, Republican John Flanagan on Sunday laid out an end-of-session to-do list with the pledge to pass “common sense” changes to the SAFE Act.

The pledged to do so, while left vague in the statement, underscores the fence mending Flanagan is expected to do with upstate Republicans and gun-rights advocates who opposed his elevation to the leadership post.

Upstate county chairs and Second Amendment organizations had supported Senate Finance Chairman John DeFrancisco as they raised concerns for Flanagan’s vote in favor of the law.

Flanagan in several interviews last week, including with Capital Tonight, acknowledged that a wholesale repeal of the 2013 gun control law is unlikely.

The measure is a signature one for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who pushed the package of laws through the Legislature in the wake of the Connecticut elementary school shooting.

Flanagan has said he will travel upstate to meet with party leaders as well as the business community.

Still, as Albany turns to policy in the remaining few session days left, what can actually get done after both legislative leaders were forced to step down following arrests in separate corruption scandals remains a question hanging over lawmakers as well as Cuomo.

The governor himself has seemingly given up on the Legislature coming to an agreement on a minimum wage increase and instead has turned his attention to a commission likely to recommend a hike for workers in the fast-food industry.

There’s still plenty to disagree on: Criminal justice reforms being pushed for in the wake of the Eric Garner case remain a sticky wicket for state lawmakers and Cuomo, as does expiring measures such as rent control and mayoral control of New York City schools.

Cuomo, like the Senate, supports an education investment tax credit aimed at spurring donations for public schools and scholarship programs that boost private schools. Assembly Democrats are generally opposed to the measure, where Speaker Carl Heastie last week acknowledged the bill is a heavy lift.

Flanagan, meanwhile, sought common ground with the governor on combating sexual assault on private college campuses through an affirmative consent proposal being pushed for by Cuomo.

“Senate Republicans are ready to work with the Governor and our partners in the Assembly to combat and root out campus sexual assault so students can feel safe in knowing that we have done everything possible to protect them from harm,” he said.

Flanagan, in a lengthy statement, reiterated his support for making the state’s cap on local property tax increases permanent as well as the passage of an education investment tax credit along with a lifting of the cap on charter schools.

The former Senate Education Committee chairman said he supports an effort to “address the concerns” raised by parents over the controversial Common Core education standards.

Making reforms to education reforms passed a little more than a month ago is perhaps the biggest, and most important, area of agreement for the Democratic-led Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate.

Lawmakers in both chambers are pushing for changes to the teacher evaluation criteria and its implementation — a policy championed by Cuomo in the budget approved last month.

State lawmakers in recent weeks have spoken in support of unlinking the implementation of the new evaluations on the local level with a boost in school aid for districts — a key facet of Cuomo’s reforms he is unlikely to go along with.

The legislative session is scheduled to conclude June 17.

Comptroller’s Office Releasing Lawmaker Per Diem Information

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s website posted per diem reimbursement data of the state Legislature dating back to 2013 and plans to do update the information quarterly.

Already, lawmakers in both the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican-led Senate have racked more than $1 million in travel reimbursements during the most recent fiscal quarter this year alone.

Data compiled by the comptroller’s office found the 150-member Assembly received $799,743 in per diem reimbursements. The 63-member Senate, meanwhile, accounted for $278,196.

The current per diem rate is $172 a day that can be spent on travel, hotel or lodging and food costs.

Ex-Assemblyman Bill Scarborough, who pleaded guilty in part to per diem abuse, has received the third highest in reimbursement between 2013 and now, $56,815.

So far this year, Assemblyman Michael Blake is leading the way, with $11,995.53. In the Senate, North Country Sen. Patty Richie has received the most, $8,800.

Legislative Travel Summary Final 4-22-15 by Nick Reisman

Buffalo Democrat Calls On Senate GOP To ‘Get Serious’ on SAFE Act

Freshman State Senator Marc Panepinto has had no problem drawing the attention of the GOP majority.  Even before Panepinto was elected, the SRCC sponsored an attack ad against him, and just last week his 13-year-old misdemeanor was invoked in the GOP’s defense of embattled State Senator Dean Skelos.

The Buffalo-area Democrat, who was more than happy to defend himself last week, went on the offensive Wednesday accusing Senate Republicans of falling short on promises to reform the controversial SAFE Act.

“For two years, they have danced around addressing any commonsense provisions within this flawed legislation that they brought to the Senate floor and passed under their majority in the Senate,” Panepinto said.

Panepinto has broken with his party and co-sponsored four pieces of legislation that would adjust the sweeping gun control law. Three of those measures would authorize the gifting of legally possessed firearms to family members through estate planning, expand the definition of “immediate family” in the law’s language, and make all personal information regarding pistol permit applications confidential except to law enforcement.

“While I have co-sponsored numerous bills to address these issues, it is no secret that only the Senate Republicans can allow these reforms to come to the Senate floor for an actual vote,” Panepinto said.

Despite voting for the SAFE Act, New Majority Leader John Flanagan told the Buffalo News he’d be open to changes to it.  The 2013 law is unpopular among conservatives in Western New York which includes Panepinto’s 60th State Senate District.

“That is why I am calling on Senate Republicans to get serious on reforming the SAFE Act and allow these meaningful proposals to be debated and addressed by the end of this session,” Panepinto added.

Fellow Western New York Senator Rob Ortt made the repeal of the SAFE Act a central part of his campaign.  Republican Pat Gallivan sponsored three of the changes Panepinto signed onto.

Neither was available for comment Wednesday night.

Flanagan Joins Leaders For Cuomo Meeting

The lineup of lawmakers exiting the governor’s office this morning was a different one than it was a year ago, or back in January for that matter.

The meeting signaled a return to some semblance of normalcy following the arrest last week of Dean Skelos, who resigned as GOP conference and majority leader on Monday.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan attended his first leaders meeting on Wednesday morning, meeting for about an hour with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate IDC Leader Jeff Klein.

The legislative session concludes on June 17 and a number of key issues are due to come to a head at that time.

As usual, lawmakers emerged from the meeting in Cuomo’s office to say little, though they revealed issues ranging from rent control and mayoral control for New York City as well as changes to the state’s teacher evaluation criteria are under discussion.

“We looked at the long list of things that have been talked about and mapped out what we’re going to talk about for the next six weeks,” Heastie told reporters after the meeting. “There’s been nothing final, no agreements, no anything. It was a good first talk, we welcomed John to the family and we’ll see what happens.”

Not discussed in the meeting was any potential for a new ethics package following the arrest of Skelos on charges that he used his official power to help his adult son’s business interests.

“There was just a long list of things that the governor, John, Jeff and I discussed and that just wasn’t one of them,” Heastie said.

There is the expectation that lawmakers will consider changes to the state’s teacher evaluation criteria that was approved as part of the budget talks.

“No surprise, after we passed the law in the budget we’ve had a lot of feedback,” Flanagan said. “That would be a kind assessment in terms of what’s out there. The speaker and I have had some discussions about returning the tests. We’re looking at this from a parent and student viewpoint.”

Heastie added: “If there are things we think we can fix, we’re going to look at that.”

Heastie flatly said he does not expect mayoral control for New York City schools to lapse before it expires next month even as Senate Republicans have raised questions.

Meanwhile, none of the legislative leaders would tip their hands on whether rent control regulations should be altered or linked to an extension of the 421a abatement.

Flanagan affirmed, too, that he would “absolutely” continue the relationship with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, which was in a governing coalition for two years while Republicans did not have a numerical majority.

Klein has been kept close by the GOP conference and remains “co-coalition leader.”

Today, Klein called the sit-down a “very refreshing meeting.”

“We talked about the different issues that are very important to each and every one of us, enabling us to move forward,” Klein said. “I think John is going to be a fantastic advocate on behalf of his conference. We’re in the right position to have a strong end of session.”

Asked what the main difference was with having Flanagan in the room, Heastie indicated there was little change.

“There’s another tall guy in there,” he joked.

A Return To Normalcy?

From the Morning Memo:

Senate Republicans on Tuesday will try to return to a semblance on normalcy, a day after their majority leader surrendered to federal authorities on corruption charges alongside his son.

Session is scheduled for 3 p.m., which will come after a host of committee meetings.

Also, it’s Tuesday, which means its Lobby Day. Heck, even the president of Albania is in town.

In other words, the Capitol will be teeming with advocates, activists and visiting constituents pushing a particular issue.

A busy day could be an otherwise perfect distraction from an issue that Senate Republicans said on Monday they did not want to be a distraction: Skelos and his legal troubles.

Support for Dean Skelos was vocalized, formally, by one lawmaker to reporters just before midnight: Sen. Ken LaValle, a long-serving Suffolk County Republican who is considered an ally for the leader.

LaValle insisted to reporters that Skelos had the support of the conference, albeit a “consensus” of lawmakers. No formal vote was taken.

“The leader has indicated that he would like to remain as leader and he has the support of the conference,” he said.

He added that Republicans in the conference want to move forward with their agenda in the post-budget session, which had very few substantive to-do items, other than preserve the state’s property tax cap.

But even in a non-election year, Skelos and his looming corruption trial gives Senate Democrats a major issue to work with. After all, both the GOP’s leader and deputy leader are under indictment.

The new precedent for dealing with corruption-plagued conference leaders was set in part by the Assembly Democrats back in January, when Sheldon Silver was forced to step down following his arrest.

Republicans have said privately that Silver’s case was different, that he governed over a more fractious conference with diverse issues and concerns, that his alleged illegal actions of hiding income mad him a poster child for Albany corruption.

Silver, too, had been in power for more than 20 years and the conference, filled with new members restive for change, were less amendable to keeping him speaker.

Assembly Democrats had initially backed their leader, as well, until their constituents spoke to them.

5 Questions For The New Week

From the Morning Memo:

The state Capitol will likely be on edge for most of the day, if not the week, as Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his adult son Adam are about to be arrested on federal corruption charges.

The pending arrest of Skelos could very well throw the Senate Republican conference — a bedrock of relative stability this year following the arrest of Sheldon Silver in the Assembly in January — into a state of unusual flux.

The broader legislative session, too, is in peril. This is not so much a concern for Senate Republicans as it is a problem for Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who are pushing a variety of post-budget issues ranging from an extension of rent control, criminal justice reforms and curtailing sexual assaults on college campuses.

In short, there are some unanswered questions heading into this week of uncertainty. Here are few of them:

1. Will Skelos be replaced? That seems to be the questioned on everyone’s mind, though one with conflicting reports. Senate Republicans both on the record and privately over the weekend insisted Skelos could survive as leader and expressed varying degrees of support in him. Still, his future depends on the charges.

2. How severe will the charges be? One Republican operative on Sunday night suggested they may not be as bad as expected. The complaint against Silver — that he allegedly hid more than $4 million in illicit income — was tied both to his job as one of the state’s most powerful individuals and his role as an attorney. The charges stemming from Skelos and son’s arrest are expected to hinge on Adam Skelos’s employment at an Arizona-based firm that received a contract from Nassau County — Dean Skelos’s political backyard.

Severity, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But the GOP conference could ultimately deem the legal complaint a witch hunt being conducted by Bharara’s office — similar to how Republicans view the case against Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous, who is accused of lying to the FBI in connection to his son’s own tax case.

The Republican operative was also skeptical of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office, noting the news of the pending arrests was leaked on a Friday night including a draft complaint, which could lead to broader questions about the prosecutor’s intentions among GOP conference members.

3. What will Senate Democrats do? If anything, lawmakers in the Senate minority conference will push hard to capitalize on the Skelos news politically. The Senate remains narrowly divided, with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference acting as a potential buffer zone for the Senate Republicans. If Skelos remains in power, the Senate Democrats will have a field day, at least for a few weeks.

4. What will Assembly Democrats do? The majority conference in the Assembly has lived this movie before, so they will likely want to keep their heads down as much as possible. Democratic lawmakers in that chamber already have a number of issues they have to get done: rent control, monitoring the regulations for the new teacher evaluation law and an extension of mayoral control for New York City schools and criminal justice reform, just to name a few. All of these are measures the Senate GOP after the budget could have been in the cat bird seat. Now, staying in Albany longer than necessary during such a toxic time does not behoove them.

5. What will Gov. Andrew Cuomo do? Is the governor presiding under a corruption crisis? Should there be new ethics reforms? Is U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara trying to dismantle state government’s top leadership? What can he say to the people of New York that assure them state government is still functioning? Can New Yorkers trust their elected officials?

Cuomo’s role in the next few weeks is clearly more complex than that of a normal legislator. In addition to a legislative agenda now in peril over potential dysfunction, the governor will be answering fresh questions about the way Albany does business and what, if anything, he can do to change the public’s perception of the Capitol.

DOH Releases Med Mar Applications

The Department of Health on Monday announced it was now accepting applications for those who are interested in getting in the medical marijuana business.

The application, posted here on the DOH website, must be returned to state officials by May 29.

Applicants are required to release specific business plans and operational procedures. A $10,000 non-refundable application fee is required, as is a $200,000 registration fee (the latter of which is refunded if state regulators decline to issue a license.

The state is requiring organizations to adhere to strict security and record-keeping requirements. At the same time, organizations registered in the program must contract with an independent laboratory in New York to test medical marijuana products.

“This represents an important step in implementing the medical marijuana program in New York State,” said acting State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. “We have laid out an ambitious timeline in getting the program up and running and we are meeting our goals. Once the applications are in, we can begin our review and move to the next step of selecting the registered organizations this summer.”

New York is award up to five businesses to grow, harvest and manufacture medical marijuana. Twenty dispensaries around the state will be licensed to sell the medical marijuana, which is being redistricted to patients will certain, severe illnesses.

The licenses will be awarded by July and the program is aimed to be up and running by early 2016.