After Con Con Fails, DiFiore Shifts Reorganization Strategy

A constitutional convention was shot down by voters this month, but New York’s top judge is not giving up on reforming the court system.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore on Friday announced a panel of judges, attorneys and academics that was formed last year to study potential organizational changes to the court system will be reconvened with an eye toward advancing legislative reforms.

The panel had initially formed to study judiciary changes in a potential constitutional convention, which was roundly rejected by voters on Election Day.

“Constitutional reforms should be considered where necessary to remove roadblocks to improving the work of the courts and to make court operations more efficient and less costly to the taxpayers and the litigants,” DiFiore said.

“The members of the Judicial Task Force on the New York State Constitution, with their deep understanding of New York State government, are uniquely positioned to contribute to this reform initiative.”

The task force will be aimed at reviewing the structure of the state’s court system as well as his multiple layers of courts.

State Police Asked To Review Incident At Cohoes Mayor’s Home

The State Police are being asked to review an incident at the home of Cohoes Mayor Shawn Morse, he said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Out of an abundant of caution, I, alongside the Cohoes police department, asked for the New York State Police to also review the matter,” Morse said. “Again, at this time, I ask for privacy for my family and I during this challenging time.”

Cohoes police had responded to a 911 call to Morse’s home on Friday in which his wife had told an emergency dispatcher that he was choking her — allegations later “discounted” by police. Morse himself later said the dispute was over a family member and he has insisted he never hurt his wife.

Morse was later seen with his wife and one of the officers who responded to the call at the Rivers Casino and Resort in Schenectady.

“Despite a call to respect my family’s privacy during this difficult, challenging ordeal as we handle – as a family – a personal situation with our child, the media reports continue to change and promote falsehoods in spite of the facts,” Morse said. “For my family to have to go through this situation as publicly as it unfortunately has is true tragedy of this.”

Morse was a 2012 Democratic candidate for the state Senate held by Sen. Neil Breslin, losing to him in a primary backed by the Independent Democratic Conference.

Albany Assesses A Coming Budget Gap

From the Morning Memo:

New York’s expected budget gap is growing larger — a more than $4 billion deficit heading into the next fiscal year now poses a challenge for Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers as they prepare to run for re-election.

“I can’t say it’s looking terribly positive to be honest with you,” said Democratic Assemblyman John McDonald of the Albany area. “Personal income tax collections are lagging behind. There is a hope that eventually that will pick up once Washington makes a decision what they’re going to do.”

It gets worse in future budget years — deficits growing to $6 billion and then $8 billion. And even if spending is capped at a 2 percent increase, the budget gap shrinks to $1.7 billion next year.

The gap is one of the largest the state has had to face when Cuomo took office dealing with a $10 billion deficit.

“I think we have to be very pragmatic and realistic going into this year’s budget that as much as we’re trying to catch up from what was lost in 2008 and 2009, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to advance as much as we would like to this year,” McDonald said.

The problem stems in part from delayed tax payments, which budget officials say is due to uncertainty over tax reform on the federal level. Cuomo says if Republican tax plans are enacted, ending deductability for state and local taxes, New York’s revenue would eventually be impacted.

“Then you would have to decimate health care, education or you would have to find additional revenue,” Cuomo said last week on a conference call with reporters.

But Republican state lawmakers say more work can be done to control spending.

“It’s always a challenge and we have to take a look at what we are spending and we are spending too much in New York state,” said Assemblyman Ray Walter, a Republican from East Amherst.

Walter pointed to economic development spending and tax incentives he says don’t work.

“These are things that we need to take a hard look at and are we getting the bang for the buck,” Walter said. “If we’re not, let’s work on cutting those expenses and using that money elsewhere it’s needed.”

Watchdog: Halt Development Spending Until Transparency Achieved

A good-government watchdog on Monday called for a halt to economic development spending until transparency measures and other new controls are put in place as a safeguard against corruption.

“First, does the legislature and public know how economic development funds are being spent? Second, do we know whether they are being awarded fairly and cleanly? Third, is the public getting a good return on their economic development investments?” testified Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany to an Assembly panel. “Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are unknown today just as they were when we last testified before this committee in February 2017.”

The renewed scrutiny on economic development spending comes as prominent upstate developers and a former close aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo are set to go on trial next year as part of an alleged bribery and bid-rigging scheme for economic development projects.

State lawmakers and reform groups last year called for new transparency measures in the wake of the arrests, which include Joe Percoco and ex-SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros. But those measures did not go far in the Legislature.

“The legislature did not pass a Database of Deals. It did not pass a Clean Contracting procurement reform package,” Camarda said. “It did not pass pay to play controls for state vendors. It did not pass a bill clarifying that state controlled nonprofits are subject to FOIL. In fact, the legislature did nothing despite state economic development programs being engulfed by the biggest bid rigging scandal in state history.”

Zemsky: START-UP NY A Success

A signature economic development program conceived by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a success, the administration’s top economic development czar said Monday after an at-times contentious appearance before state lawmakers at a public hearing in Albany.

“I think we’ve created an environment where a lot of those businesses that have traditionally left upstate aren’t leaving,” said Empire State Development CEO Howard Zemsky.

“We have a lot of examples. We could go through the START-UP report. I think on a per job basis when you look at we’ve got well over a hundred million dollars of economic impact.”

The program provides 10 years of tax free operation in New York for businesses that set up on or near college campuses. Businesses have pledged to create 4,403 jobs. So far, 1,135 jobs in the first three years of the program have been created, according to a report released in April.

The program has come under scrutiny and criticism for the $53 million ad campaign that was attached to it and lawmakers have continuously questioned START-UP’s effectiveness as a vehicle for creating jobs.

All told, New York has laid out nearly $6 million in tax breaks over the last three years for companies participating in the program.

Zemsky, speaking with reporters after his appearance before an Assembly panel on economic development, once again defended the advertising campaign as a means of turning around the state’s perception.

“START-UP NY is an important piece of the puzzle,” Zemsky said. “It doesn’t transform upstate New York in of itself, but all these things working together I think are having a transformative impact on upstate New York and I think it’s very important.”

Upstate New York this decade has not grown in population and has struggled to retain or increase jobs at the same pace as downstate New York. The New York City metropolitan area has largely recovered in the wake of the economic recession.

Parts of upstate New York, economic experts have said, has failed to see a similar recovery.

During his appearance at the Assembly’s economic development hearing on Monday morning, Zemsky had at an-times pointed exchange with Republican Assemblyman Ray Walter of western New York.

Walter questioned whether the job growth in western New York could be tied to state spending. Zemsky strongly disagreed, insisting the state’s help has aided in ending a downturn that last “forty freaking years.”

At another point during an exchange with Walter, Zemsky responded “Yep, yep, yep, blah, blah, blah.”

While Zemsky was touting the program, it no longer has an executive director since earlier this year. Zemsky on Monday suggested that job would be eliminated.

Biz Council Gives Thumbs Down To Senate Tax Plan

The state Business Council was no less enthused by the U.S. Senate’s tax reform plan than the group was for the House GOP proposal.

In a statement Thursday, Business Council Heather Briccetti pointed to the tax plan in the Senate going “even further” than the House bill by completely eliminating the deduction of state and local taxes.

“As we have said repeatedly throughout this process, New York is a net donor state, giving far more in tax dollars to the federal government than we receive,” she said. “Eliminating SALT will only exacerbate that disparity. Increasingly, politicians and policy experts of all ideologies acknowledge that a SALT elimination would make the state less competitive relative to most other states and could drive high-earning New Yorkers out of the state.”

New York elected officials in both parties have decried the initial tax plan released by House Republicans that caps deductions for property taxes at $10,000 and mortgage interest at $500,000. Though upstate communities would not be impacted as much, downstate homeowners in many instances would be hurt.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that even with capping deductions, the state overall would be negatively impacted by the loss of higher-income people who would potentially leave the state.

DAs Want To Strengthen Wrongful Conviction Review

The group that represents district attorneys in New York has formed a committee that is reviewing the process of conviction integrity in order to strengthen the review of wrongful guilty verdicts.

The committee is being put in charge of developing a more “structured and documented procedure” for conviction review.

“The availability of this type of review is vital for offices that lack the personnel or financial resources to fully conduct such a review,” said Scott McNamara, the president of the District Attorneys Association of New York and the Oneida Conuty DA.

“Last year DAASNY enhanced their ethics process. Now I hope to enhance the process of conviction integrity review. This is another example of the ongoing efforts of District Attorneys to continuously improve the criminal justice system in the State of New York.”

The panel is aimed at investigating wrongful conviction claims by defendants who claim innocence based on either a factual matter, newly found evidence or other information.

The group in 2009 formed a committee composed of district attorneys to oversee best practices and review wrongful convictions while also recommending procedures to strengthen truth seeking functions.

The Con Con Blow Out

From the Morning Memo:

To get a sense of how big the rejection of the constitutional convention referendum was, consider Monroe County. In 1997, the county narrowly voted it down.

On Tuesday, the margin was a lot bigger.

“Twenty years ago, that was almost fifty-fifty,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It was the biggest county that had the closest margin. This time it went down 3 to 1. I think it’s a clear indication that the forces opposed to a constitutional convention were mobilized, active and very aggressive going into Election Day.”

The was the story statewide for the constitutional convention, which was strongly opposed by labor unions. Voters in every county rejected iby a wide margin, and voter participation in the referendum was high.

“This time we saw the majority of voters actually did on that question and that was very impressive,” said Jennifer Wilson, the legislative director of the League of Women Voters. “Regardless of the fact that it did go down, we’re really impressed by the turnout in the election.”

Elsewhere on the ballot, voters did approve an amendment to the existing constitution that allows for the stripping of pensions for elected and appointed officials convicted of a felony, a move aimed at stoping corruption. And voters backed the creation of a land bank for the Catskills and Adirondacks.

“I think that there was so much focus on the con con question that there wasn’t much focus on that last question and there wasn’t a single environmental group that opposed it,” Wilson said.

Environmental groups say the land bank amendment is key to streamline infrastructure development.

“A project by project type of approach where we have to amend the constitution each time for Catskill and Adirondack communities wasn’t efficient and it was’t working,” said Amanda Lefton of the Nature Conservancy.

But turnout overall was low statewide, despite a pair of contested county executive races in the New York City suburbs.

“It doesn’t seem like voter interest really moved the needle much despite the fact these were contested events,” Horner said. “If anything it’s about plus one in terms of voter turnout.”

Samuels Plans New Reform Vehicle In 2018

From the Morning Memo:

Democratic activist Bill Samuels isn’t giving up on reform after a constitutional convention was rejected by voters this week.

In a Capital Tonight interview on Wednesday, Samuels said he plans to push for changes and a “new methodology” for reforming state government next year.

“We’re going to be very aggressive in 2018 on this,” Samuels said.

Samuels had funded a push to pass the convention referendum in order to usher in changes to state government, including overhauling campaign finance laws and providing protections to the LGBT community and bolstering the rights of women.

In the interview, Samuels said he would like to see some form of an initiative and referendum in New York, similar to what either California or even Florida has in place for direct voter action.

Still, Samuels acknowledged he accepted the outcome of the con con vote, insisting it would have been as wide a margin as it was, even without the heavy spending by labor unions to sink it.

“The voters made a decision that this open-ended process of amending the constitution, they are uncomfortable with,” he said.

Voters Resoundingly Reject Constitutional Convention

Voters on Tuesday soundly rejected a referendum for a constitutional convention, dealing a victory to the coalition of labor unions, environmental organizations and other interest groups that had opposed it.

The referendum was declared defeated less than an hour after polls closed. It falls within an historical rejection of the convention referendum, which voters generally have not approved when given the opportunity.

Holding a convention had been staunchly opposed by labor groups, who worried rights such as collective bargaining would be impacted or potentially weakened if a convention is held. Environmental groups fretted over the status of “forever wild” conservation requirements in the constitution for protected lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills.

“This is a defining moment for the labor movement as it demonstrates what can be accomplished when we all work together, from the public sector, private sector and building trades unions, to the Central Labor Councils and Area Labor Federations,” said AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento.

The groups, through a coalition called New Yorkers Against Corruption, funded an ad campaign opposing the referendum. Some of the concerns — such as infringing on pensions benefits — were overstated. Pensions are protected in the U.S. Constitution.

At the same time, legislative leaders from both parties in Albany feared the convention and the election of delegates would be fueled by well-funded outside groups that can spend unlimited sums of money.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had previously expressed support for a convention and an overhaul of the delegate process, said through a spokeswoman he would vote no on the referendum.

On the side favoring a convention was a mostly underfunded collection of activists for good government and reform, who had hoped a convention would stir needed changes to the structure of state government and the funding of political campaigns.

They had framed the convention as a once-in-a-generation chance to change a state government that has been beset by corruption and dysfunction.

But those supporters will have to wait until 2037, when the next referendum is scheduled to be held.

“The defeat of the Constitutional Convention is a triumph for all of the enemies of reform in Albany: Andrew Cuomo, the political bosses in the State Legislature, and the lobbyists and special interests who thrive in New York’s pay for play culture of corruption,” said Bill Samuels, the Democratic activist who had supported the referendum, with the hope of ushering in campaign finance and ethics reforms.

“The Constitutional Convention movement was always about fundamentally reforming our broken system and transforming the state’s government from an embarrassment into a proud model for the rest of the nation.”