Spending Reform Urged As Percoco Trial Begins

From the Morning Memo:

Jury selection in the trial of a former close aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo starts today in New York City in a case that could show the intersection of money and politics in the public policy of economic development spending.

The trial of Joe Percoco, who faces fraud and bribery charges, is not expected to be delayed by the federal government shutdown, at least for now. The federal courts are able to remain open using available money drawn from court fees and other sources.

Cuomo himself will not be in New York for part of the day: He will fly to Utah to attend a screening of a documentary that chronicles his partner Sandra Lee’s battle with breast cancer.

The Percoco trial stems from alleged efforts to rig economic development bids for favored contractors. Prosecutors have accused Percoco of receiving bribes masked as consulting fees in exchange for a favored contract to construct a power facility in the Hudson Valley.

Prominent upstate developers from Syracuse and Buffalo also faces charges, as does the former president of SUNY Polytechnic, Alain Kalyeros.

As the trial gets underway, good-government reformers are urging Albany in a letter to take pre-emptive action on overhauling how the state’s economic development money is spent.

“Today, we write to call on you to reject the over $3.2 billion in new proposed spending in the Executive Budget on economic development and business subsidies until major anti-corruption and transparency reforms are put in place,” they wrote in the letter addressed to Cuomo and the top leaders in the Assembly and Senate. “We reiterate our request that you pass into law the following Clean Contracting reforms — which remain urgently needed.”

Those changes include empowering Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office to review all SUNY and Office of General Services contracts of more than $250,000, block state-affilaited entities from doing business with their boards of directors and creation of a database of deals to show the total value of subsidies and other inducements awarded to businesses as well as provisions for clawing the money back.

“We also urge you to explore options to limit campaign contributions from anyone seeking a state contract to reduce potential conflicts of interest,” the letter states. “The Governor’s proposal in the Executive Budget is one option worthy of review.”

Later this year, the retrials of the former top legislative leaders in the Senate and Assembly, Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, will get underway. Both are facing new charges after their convictions on fraud and corruption were overturned last year based on a narrowed definition of theft of honest services.

NYSUT Will Have Presence At Women’s March

The New York State United Teachers union on Saturday plans to have a presence at events across the state as part of the national Women’s March.

The union plans to be in force around New York, including a presence at the Albany march. The effort is being led by NYSUT Vice President Jolene DiBrango. The vast majority of the union’s membership is women, about three-quarters.

Amendment Would Add Gender Protections To The Constitution

Lost in the shuffle of the budget presentation this week was the roll out of an amendment as proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would add gender protections to the state Constitution.

The amendment was previously announced part of a package of sexual harassment measures Cuomo unveiled several weeks ago. Specifically, it adds “sex” to the list of protected classes that currently include race, color, creed and religion.

It is also among four amendments Cuomo has proposed as concurrent resolutions with the budget plan, including the adoption of same-day voter registration, limiting the outside of state lawmakers and term limits for elected officials.

A constitutional amendment must be approved by two separately elected sessions of the Legislature and then goes to voters in a ballot referendum. The amendments proposed this year could be before voters as soon as 2019.

Which Payroll Tax Option Will It Be? Wait A Month

The Department of Taxation and Finance released a report providing an exhaustive menu of options for a potential statewide payroll tax in New York, but it may be a month before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration can settle on a preferred plan.

Budget Director Robert Mujica in a radio interview Thursday said it’s likely the finalized details for the proposed payroll tax would end up in the 30-day budget amendments.

“Having them review the options, this is based on earlier conversations but now we’ve put out concrete options,” he said on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom. “And then work from now through the budget cycle to draft legislation. We have a 30-day amendment period so we can amend the budget that the Governor submitted yesterday to the legislature. So we hope to have legislation drafted within that 30-day period so we can get everything done.”

The tax could ultimately sit alongside the existing personal income tax and/or be a opt-in for businesses, that would then deduct the tax from its federal taxes.

Restructuring the state’s tax code has been met with skepticism from Republican lawmakers as well as some budget observers who have questioned whether such an undertaking can be done by the end of March.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, has been more welcoming of the potential change, saying that it’s a necessary response to the federal government capping state and local tax deductions at $10,000.

At the same time, there is also the possibility the federal government, either through Congress or the IRS, revise the tax laws again to close whatever loophole the state finds.

Mujica, in the interview, said the state’s analysis of the tax situation is sound.

“So within the confines in the law as it was drafted, we have legal experts, we have legal scholars, we have some of the best tax lawyers in the country working with us to do our, to create our code in a way that we think is going to withstand any legal test,” he said. “But if Washington wants to come after New York again and try to recover these funds we’ll have to deal with that. But right now, we’re going to do whatever we can to protect New Yorkers.”

Schneiderman To Report $8.5M In Cash

From the Morning Memo:

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s re-election campaign is set to report having more than $8.5 million in cash on hand, his biggest war chest ever.

He began the fundraising period, which started in July, with $7.5 million in the bank.

At this point in the previous election cycle, January 2014, Schneiderman reported $5.9 million in cash on hand.

A former state senator, Schneiderman is seeking a third term in the AG’s office.

In the last year, Schneiderman’s profile has risen as his office has sought to flex its legal muscle in filing court challenges to various policies pursued by President Donald Trump’s administration, ranging from environmental issues to immigration.

For now, Schneiderman is yet to draw a Republican challenger.

DeRosa Takes Aim At Williams

The top aide and advisor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday pre-emptively took aim at New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams in a radio interview, questioning his commitment to bedrock liberal issues, as he considers a run for lieutenant governor.

“I read that he is against marriage equality and that he is against a woman’s right to choose, and as a progressive Democrat that troubles me tremendously,” said Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, in response to a question in an interview on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom, while also noting Williams unsuccessfully ran for City Council president.

In the same interview, DeRosa did not commit to incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul remaining on the ticket, saying she would leave that determination with Hochul.

Updated: Hochul spokeswoman Haley Viccaro said in a statement, “The lieutenant governor fully intends to run for lieutenant governor with the governor and has taken the last three years to make her mark across the state and has enjoyed her time spreading the governor’s message.”

Hochul became lieutenant governor in 2015, added to the Democratic ticket in 2014 as Cuomo sought a second term, replacing then-incumbent Bob Duffy. Hochul faced a primary challenge from Columbia professor Tim Wu.

The governor and lieutenant governor run separately in party primaries and their have been instances in which a gubernatorial candidate’s preferred nominee for lieutenant governor fails to win the nomination.

Mercury Hires Former Cuomo Advisor, Saratoga Mayor

The public affairs firm Mercury has hired former Cuomo policy advisor Alexandra Greene and ex-Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen.

Yepesen, a Democrat, will be a senior vice president after serving two terms as mayor of Saratoga Springs. Greene will be a vice president at Mercury after working four years in the Cuomo administration.

“Mayor Yespen proved in office that she gets things done, and will bring that same energy and determination to Mercury,” said Mercury Partner Michael McKeon.

“Alexandra Greene has a deep understanding of economic development issues, with unique insights into the Governor’s signature commitment to bringing real power to the State’s MWBE program. Together, they bring a wealth of experience in policy and the inner workings of government at every level, as well as invaluable relationships across the State.”

Siena Poll: Cuomo Numbers Up, Voters Want Taxes Tackled

New York voters by a margin of 62 percent to 30 percent have a favorable view of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, his in several years, which comes as he faces a re-election year and a daunting budget season, a Siena College poll released on Tuesday found.

The poll found Cuomo’s favorability rating among likely voters has rebounded since November, when he held a 52 percent to 43 percent score.

The poll also found Cuomo’s job performance rating has also rebounded since November, when he scored a negative 45 percent to 54 percent. Now, 50 percent of voters approved, while 48 percent do not.

And as Cuomo prepares to run for a third term with a massive $30 million war chest and against what are expected to be little-known Republican rivals, 55 percent of voters are prepared to re-elect him, compared with 36 percent who prefer a generic “someone else.”

Cuomo also tops elected officials and the Legislature in New York when it comes to favorability, ahead of U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer at 59 percent and Kirsten Gillibrand at 51 percent.

Even with Cuomo’s numbers at an enviable place at the start of the year, the state faces multiple challenges, including a $4.5 billion budget shortfall that must be closed in the spending plan expected to pass by March 31, the end of the state’s fiscal year. With spending capped at a 2 percent increase, the deficit shrinks to $1.7 billion.

The challenge for Cuomo and lawmakers, also in a re-election year, would be to close the deficit without spurring a high stakes fight over education and health care funding. Cuomo is laying out his budget proposal for the 2018-19 today in Albany.

However, the poll found education — typically one the top issues for voters in New York — has been replaced by taxes as the issue voters want to see Cuomo tackle in the new year. Health care ranked second, with education at third.

Adding to the problems is a $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions in a federal tax law approved last month by Congress. Cuomo has raised the possibility of shifting the state to a payroll tax or allowing for charges in charitable deductions in order to lessen the blow on those impacted.

New York voters, meanwhile, are skeptical the tax law will be good for New York. A plurality, 43 percent, believe it will hurt the state’s economy, with 24 percent saying it will improve things. Twenty-one percent expect it will have little impact.

At the same time, a similar plurality, 45 percent, expect to their personal finances will be about the same as a result of the new law; 33 percent expect to be worse off.

The poll of 824 registered voters was conducted from Jan. 7 through Jan. 11. It has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

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Former Lawmakers Pay Legal Fees With Campaign Cash

Two former state lawmakers over the last six months have used campaign cash to pay their legal bills, filings with the state Board of Elections show.

The filings show both ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Sen. George Maziarz have used the money to pay for attorneys as they face corruption trials in the new year.

Skelos, a Republican from Long Island, paid more than $427,000 in attorneys fees in the last six months. He has more than $400,000 in cash left on hand as he faces retrial on fraud charges. Skelos along with his son had his conviction overturned last year and is awaiting retrial by federal prosecutors.

Maziarz, a GOP former lawmaker from western New York, has paid attorney Joe LaTona $36,997 while representing him in his upcoming corruption case.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, also faces retrial this later this year on corruption charges. His campaign filed a “no activity” statement with the Board of Elections.

Siena Poll: NYers Say Sexual Harassment Is A Significant Problem

The vast majority of New Yorkers believe sexual harassment in the workplace is a “significant problem,” according to a Siena College poll released Monday.

The poll, which also reviewed how New Yorkers view race, religious, gender and LGBT relations, found 25 percent of voters surveyed have been victims of sexual harassment.

Thirty-six percent of women say that have been harassed and, of those women, 28 percent have been harassed at some point in the last five years, the poll found.

The poll comes after months of a national reckoning surrounding harassment, assault and sexual misconduct, with accusations leveled against a range of powerful men in the media, politics, entertainment and restaurant industries.

In New York, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein is combatting a claim made last week that he forcibly kissed a former staffer outside of a bar in Albany in March 2015.

State lawmakers have proposed overhauling how sexual harassment allegations are handled in state government by creating a uniform policy. Sexual harassment in New York’s Legislature is not new, and a multiple lawmakers in the last several years have left office under a cloud of accusations leveled agains them by legislative aides.

The Siena poll, released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, also found 39 percent of New Yorkers believe race relations in New York are excellent or good. Fifty-eight percent rate them at fair or poor.

That’s an improvement from a 2015 survey from Siena College that found 31 percent held a positive view of race relations compared to 66 percent who did not.

Still, 29 percent of New York voters surveyed say they had been treated unfairly in the last year based on their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

The poll of 824 registered voters was conducted from Jan. 7 to Jan. 11 and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.