Albany

Barring Special Session, Infrastructure Spending Could Dominate 2015

Ask local governments about their wishlist for 2015 and the conversation inevitably turns to infrastructure spending. With the state running a multibillion dollar surplus, municipal leaders have a long list of what needs to get fixed.

“We think municipal infrastructure is really the foundation of economic development: transportation, water, sewer. There would be a huge return on investment if we were to do that,” said Peter Baynes, Conference of Mayors executive director.

Indeed, the 2015 legislative session could bring some major infrastructure projects for localities that have struggled to maintain roads, bridges and sewer systems after years of lean budgets.

“What happened in Erie County really brings to the front of the line if you will the need for infrastructure spending,” said Stephen Acquario, Association Of Counties executive director.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo backs using at least part of the surplus gained from windfall financial settlements on needed repairs, but the governor also wants to spend about $500 million on encouraging local governments to consolidate and share services. It’s a conversation Cuomo has tried to spark over the last several years with little success.

Local government advocates in Albany are cool to the idea, arguing that the best way to reduce property taxes is to help reduce mandated state spending.

“To dump a lot of state resources to sort of force a shotgun marriage that doesn’t always work, we don’t think makes a lot of sense. We think there’s better ways to use the money,” Baynes said.

Meanwhile, local governments may next year push for changes to the state’s property tax cap, first approved in 2011. The cap is tied to rent control laws for New York City, which are due to expire in June.

“We really have to look at the tax cap, we have to look at the language, see where it’s working, see where it’s not working in areas of payment in lieu of taxes,” said Acquario. “There are certain technical things that are tied to that current law that can and should be changed for the betterment of the program all across the state.

The debate over how to spend the surplus could be defused next in December if lawmakers convene in a special session.

Special Session Over-Under

From the Morning Memo:

There has been a lot of talk about whether the Legislature will return to Albany before the 2015 session – most likely in the second week of December – to approve a pay raise for lawmakers, whose $79,500 starting salary has remained the same since early 1999.

Officially speaking, there are no formal negotiations taking place. Both legislative leaders have spoken publicly about their support for a pay raise, but Cuomo hasn’t yet said much of anything.

That’s thanks in part to the fact that he was focused on storm recovery in Western NY, where he spent almost an entire week. Now, of course, the governor’s attention has turned to the next big storm to threaten the state.

But this storm isn’t expected to be nearly as significant, accumulation-wise, and Cuomo’s return to the NYC area has re-started the special session speculation.

The main question is what – if anything – lawmakers and the governor will seek to link to the pay raise in order to give themselves some cover.

If legislators return to Albany just to give themselves a nice holiday gift of higher pay, it isn’t going to sit well with many New Yorkers – especially when liberal advocates are calling for action on a minimum wage increase. But there isn’t really any consensus at this point on the linkage question.

Last night on CapTon, John McArdle, the Senate GOP’s former chief spokesman, who maintains strong ties to the conference and its leader, put the chances of a special session at “50-50, no better right now.”

McArdle argued in favor of a straight pay raise bill with nothing attached, other than perhaps reform of the per diem system.

“I think anything that’s on the table right now could be done in January, so there’s really only one issue that would require them to come back,” McArdle said.

“..when you get to what that could potentially be traded for, that’s where it becomes problematic, and may negative the session. Period.”

McArdle also argued that at a time when people like US Attorney Preet Bharara are investigating supposed “quid pro quos” and other illegal actions by state lawmakers, it might not look so great for legislators to vote “yes” on a pay raise in exchange for their support of some unrelated legislation.

Of course, that’s a time-honored tradition in Albany.

The last time lawmakers passed a (38 percent) pay raise, they did so only after striking a deal with then-Gov. George Pataki that created charter schools in New York and set up a system in which legislators’ paychecks would be withheld if they failed to enact an on-time budget. (In the long run, that didn’t work very well as a deterrent).

McArdle did point out that Cuomo ostensibly “needs” a pay raise just as much as legislators do, since any increase in salary will apply not only to his own bottom line, but also to that of his senior staffers.

And that might help the governor attract some new talent for Term Two at a time when he’s having a very tough time recruiting replacements for departing top aides.

Signs right now are pointing to the days on or around Dec. 10 as a likely time for lawmakers to return to Albany.

As Capital’s Jimmy Vielkind notes this morning, the Senate Republicans are scheduled to host a fundraiser at the Fort Orange Club in Albany on Dec. 10, which is the same day Cuomo will announce the latest round of regional economic development council awards.

Scarborough Raked In Per Diems Since 2009

Assemblyman Bill Scarborough, the Queens Democrat who now faces state and federal corruption charges stemming from misuse of campaign-finance funds and per diems, has consistently ranked among top earners when it comes to taxpayer-funded reimbursements.

According to the state comptroller’s office, Scarborough has received $196,929 in per diem funds from 2009 through 2014.

He received the second-highest amount of reimbursements in 2009 and 2010 and ranked first in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

This year, in which he has received $18,544, he is ranked 12th among his colleagues in the Senate and Assembly.

Federal prosecutors charge Scarborough filed for per diem money that he was not entitled to, either claiming he was in Albany when he wasn’t, or that he was in the Capitol for a shorter amount of time than claimed.

Scarborough is accused of receiving at least $40,000 in reimbursement cash that he should not have gotten.

Scarborough Arrested, To Be Arraigned In Albany

Queens Democratic Assemblyman Bill Scarborough was arrested by investigators from the state attorney general’s office on Wednesday and is due in an Albany court later this morning.

The arrest is expected be discussed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli at a news conference this afternoon at 2 p.m. in New York City.

Scarborough’s legal troubles began in March, when investigators from the attorney general’s office and the FBI raided the lawmaker’s district office in Queens, his home and his Capitol office in Albany.

Scarborough had initially told reporters investigators were interested in his reporting of travel expenses and denied any wrongdoing.

His arrest comes a year after a trio of incumbent lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly were arrested in separate corruption scandals.

Sen. Tom Libous, a Binghamton Republican, was charged earlier this year with one count of lying to the FBI in a case stemming from his son receiving a job at a politically connected law firm.

The arrest, coming just over a month before Election Day, comes as the anti-corruption commission created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo comes under scrutiny from the U.S. attorney’s office in New York City.

Redistricting Amendment Supporters Plan Campaign

The good government groups that back a proposed constitutional change to the state’s redistricting process plan a voter outreach and education effort in the lead-up to the Nov. 4 election.

The groups – Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters, – held a webinar-style briefing for reporters on Tuesday that pitched the redistricting amendment – the product of a 2012 compromise between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers – as the best chance for reforming the system in generations.

“It’s rare when voters are able to take power away from legislators,” said Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey. “This is a once-in-a-half-century opportunity.”

The amendment to the state’s constitution would create a new panel to draw Assembly, Senate and congressional districts in the next round of redistricting, based off the 2020 U.S. Census.

Supporters of the amendment contend the measure will remove the highly partisan process that has resulted in gerrymandered legislative districts and place it in the hands of a less self-interested body.

But state’s good-government advocates are not in complete agreement on the measure.

Both Common Cause and the New York Public Interest Research Group contend the language on the ballot before voters is both misleading and confusing. They especially take issue with the word “independent” being included on the ballot referendum, pointing to the commission being appointed by members of the Legislature.

Common Cause’s executive director, Susan Lerner, is a petitioner in a lawsuit filed in response to the ballot language.

But the amendment’s supporters say the provision before voters is the best possible reform.

“Independent has a strange meaning here in Albany,” said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters. “Independence – you have to go a couple of degrees out, and this actually does that. This is as independent as you can get in Albany.”

The groups are launching a website to highlight the need for the amendment’s passage and are not ruling out a paid advertising campaign if fundraising allows.

“This will involve a great deal of voter education,” Dadey said.

Report: State Lawmakers Spending Heavily On Legal Fees

The various corruption investigations and sexual harassment scandals have been an economic boon for law firms in New York, according to a review of legislative spending by the Empire Center for New York State Policy.

The think tank found state lawmakers have spent more than $1 million in public money for outside legal representation over the last six months, based on the recently released expenditure reports.

The Assembly has paid a total of $657,629 to five different law firms. The largest chunk of money went to Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedma — $345,000.

The state Senate, meanwhile, has $418,574 in legal services performed by Jones Day, most likely stemming from work performed during the redistricting process.

Other outside spending was most likely due to representation for the Moreland Act Commission investigation and representation for the various sexual harassment scandals in the Assembly.

The expense reports cover Oct. 1 of last year through the end of the fiscal year, March 31.

The report comes as the state is spending $300,000 on legal representation for the now-defunct Moreland Commission in the ongoing investigation of its closure by the U.S. attorney’s office.

Citizens Union: Two Primaries Leads To Low Turnout

Two primaries — one for federal elections and another for state and local races — isn’t just an expensive proposition for New Yorkers, it’s driving low voter turnout, said good-government group Citizens Union.

New York’s Congressional primaries were moved to June in 2012 by a federal judge so the state could comply with a federal law governing timely access to military and overseas ballots.

But state lawmakers failed to agree on moving the primary date out of September.

So, like 2012, New York will have a second round of party primaries for state and local races.

“Participation in our democracy is in a steep decline,” said Dick Dadey, Executive Director at Citizens Union. “Voter turnout has been plummeting for decades, and rather than addressing this troubling trend, our state legislature has made matters worse by failing to agree on the same date for both federal and state primary elections. With too many elections, voters are increasingly checking out.”

Citizens Union found turnout in the June primary in 2012 was only 9.57 percent. Granted, sparse turnout is a hallmark of primaries, but that was a drop of 31 percent from average turnout in races from 2004 through 2010 when consolidated primary days were held.

Citizens Union adds the legislative calendar should be adjusted in order to accommodate the June primaries. This would also benefit state lawmakers who run for Congress. Two state senators — Democrat Adriano Espaillat and Republican Lee Zeldin — competed in last night’s primaries as did Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney.

JCOPE Launches Anti-Corruption Hotline

jcopewebsite

The state commission charged with regulating ethics and lobbying in Albany has a new hotline and website with the goal of getting tips on wrongdoing.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics Monday launched the website, reportmisconduct.ny.gov, along with the hotline.

Though framed initially as a place for state employees to report sexual harassment, the website and phone number have a much larger purview, with tips being solicited for public corruption such as conflicts of interest, nepotism and improper gifts.

“Promoting compliance with our ethics and lobbying laws remains the Joint Commission’s top priority, and that includes holding those who violate the laws accountable for their actions,” said Commission Executive Director Letizia Tagliafierro in a statement. “The Commission’s new tip line and website provide a secure means for State employees and officials, and all New Yorkers, to inform the Commission of potential misconduct in our government.”

The hotline, first proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, includes a $200,000 allocation in the 2014-15 state budget.

The Final Countdown

From the morning memo:

Be prepared for a late evening at the state Capitol what is the scheduled final day of the 2014 legislative session.

And while some aren’t closing the door to staying through Friday, a host of complicated issues are coming down to the wire.

Medical marijuana remains the most closely watched issue in the final hours of the session, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to have concerns over how the bill is being written, including whether it will allow for the smoking of the drug.

Senate Democrats sent a shot across everyone’s bow this morning to note their votes are going to count on the Compassionate Care Act, saying in so many words to The Daily News that a watered-down bill won’t have their support.

The news could be one reason for Cuomo to be less inclined to negotiate on the bill, citing a lack of votes for his preferred changes to the legislation.

While there isn’t necessarily a timetable for medical marijuana, lawmakers and the governor are at a more precarious point with changing the state’s teacher evaluation law after adjustments were made to the Common Core roll out.

Lawmakers worry the state is at risk of losing federal funding should the evaluation issue not be resolved, and so far no details of a potential agreement have leaked out.

Still, Cuomo repeatedly placed blame on the state Department of Education for the need to make legislative fixes to the evaluation law as well as Common Core standards for students.

In New York City, meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio trying to get state lawmakers to approve a bill setting a 25 mph speed limit, part of his “Vision Zero” initiative to increase traffic safety.

But the bill, like so many end-of-session discussions, is imperiled by the political considerations.

De Blasio and the city Council have embraced legislation proposed by Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, who backs a plan that would give deference to community boards.

To say the least, Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos was non-committal on holding a vote on the bill when speaking with reporters on Wednesday, sarcastically referring to the liberal mayor as his “best friend.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has his own version of the legislation that did not did receive a home rule message, and said in an interview he’d be taking a wait-and-see approach with what the Senate plans to do on the speed limit legislation.

Correction: A home rule message was approved for the Assembly bill.

These are all headline-grabbing issues that reporters and lobbyists are scrambling to keep up with. The hallmark of any legislative session ending, even with a relatively uneventful one like this, are under the radar items that don’t come to light until they’re voted on or, worse, well after the fact.

But we do know Cuomo and lawmakers are negotiating a budget “clean up” bill that will have God-knows-what inside of it.

Plus, Cuomo has introduced a variety of program bills in the last several days. One recent bill includes a long-sought provision for 1199 SEIU, a key union that helped broker the Working Families Party’s endorsement of the governor.

Another bill introduced this week would address constitutional concerns over a cyberbullying law.

Skelos Doesn’t Rule Out Vote On Medical Marijuana

The top leaders of the Senate and Assembly met for about an hour with Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday to discuss the end of the legislative session in Albany.

Characteristically, Sens. Jeff Klein and Dean Skelos, along with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, said little after emerging from the closed-door meeting.

Indeed, all three wanted instead to talk about the state’s bond rating being improved by Moody’s earlier this afternoon.

Klein, the leader of the independent Democrats, said Cuomo served them cake to celebrate the bond rating news (The cake was apparently given to staff; none of the leaders would say what kind of cake was served).

But Skelos, the Republican leader, wouldn’t rule out a vote by the end of the week on a measure that would legalize medical marijuana.

“I’m not ruling anything out, I’m not ruling anything in,” Skelos said. “I’ve been here long enough to know never say never.”

The medical marijuana legislation known as the Compassionate Care Act remains under negotiation, but those talks seemingly took a step backward today when Sen. Diane Savino accused Cuomo of attempting to negotiation the measure through the press.

Details of Cuomo’s concerns over the bill leaked this morning to The Daily News.

Still, Cuomo has not ruled out issuing a message of necessity for the measure should an agreement come in to place.

The bill has the pledged the support from Republicans in the Legislature, but Cuomo says he continues to be concerned about patients being able to smoke marijuana.