Albany Considers Contentious Issues Ahead Of Budget

From the Morning Memo:

The state budget is expected to pass within the next month, but lawmakers at the state Capitol are diving into a range of complicated and emotional issues ranging from gun control to making it easier for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits.

“These are, in some cases, very big issues that have multiple sides, and they’re issues that deserve a discussion,” said Sen. Robert Ortt, a Republican lawmaker from North Tonawanda. “But I don’t know if the budget is the right place to have that discussion, and I don’t know if the public benefits.”

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats and IDC lawmakers sought to raise the gun control issue on the floor of the chamber, proposing a series of hostile amendments to other bills that were voted down on procedural grounds that Republicans voted down.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, plan to push for school safety funding in the budget.

“I think we have to look at our schools and I think everything should be on the table, and obviously, people need resources to make schools safer,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Advocates for the Child Victims Act once again pressed their argument for the bill, emboldened by Governor Andrew Cuomo including the proposal in his budget plan. The bill would extend the statute of limitations for sex abuse and assault survivors to file lawsuits. It has languished in the Senate, however.

“This year, we have an opportunity to see finally where the Republican Senate stands on the Child Victims Act,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from Manhattan.

Packaging policy in a fiscal spending plan is not new this year, but it’s increasingly frustrating lawmakers, especially Republicans, as the state constitution gives Cuomo a wide degree of power over the budget-making process.

“He does have leverage, but I think the legislature has to start pushing back, even on some of the bills that have been vetoed by the governor,” said Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb. “Not once since I’ve been here have we tried to override one of the governor’s vetoes.”

Lawmakers expect to pass the budget by March 29, several days before the start of the new fiscal year.

Senate Democrats Manuever Gun Control Amendments

Democrats in the state Senate on Wednesday unsuccessfully sought to attach gun control-related amendments to legislation, raising the issue once again following the shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead.

The amendments, though voted down, come as Republicans in the state Senate have signaled support for possible gun control legislation, which could include making it harder for those deemed too dangerous to obtain a firearm and closing up loopholes in the prohibition against people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from keeping and obtaining guns.

Republicans successfully blocked the gun control amendments on procedural grounds, but the amendments were backed by the mainline and Indepednent Democratic Conference.

“I’m hoping we have enough colleagues to stand up for New Yorkers and their safety,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Yonkers.

Republicans on Tuesday emerged from a closed-door conference to not rule out new gun control measures as well as backing funding for school security upgrades, such as metal detectors and armed resource officers.

Democrats are unlikely to back more armed personnel at schools, but are open to bolstering security, potentially in the budget agreement due next month.

“I do envision it. I mean clearly after what was happening in some of the community centers there was a push to create funding for the retrofitting,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I think we have to look at our schools and I think everyone should be on the table and we need resources for schools.”

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, signaled support for security upgrades and while he did not explicitly rule out action on gun control, did not use the word “gun” or “firearm” in the statement.

“Our Senate Republican Majority is hard at work on a comprehensive school safety plan that will ensure the state provides the support necessary to strengthen school security and keep students safe,” he said. “We have had productive internal discussions this week on the concepts of a full legislative package, and expect to act as early as next week.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has made gun control a signature issue for him following the shooting at Connecticut elementary school, said he would back additional gun control efforts, but insisted the SAFE Act remained the best gun control law in the country.

“To the extent we can strengthen the SAFE Act, of course I would support those provisions,” he said in an unrelated conference call. “But we also know a state law cannot solve this problem because guns come over borders.”

Cuomo urged Democrats nationally to push harder on the issue, which earned a rebuke from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a fellow New Yorker and Democrat.

“The national Democrats are seriously debating it,” he said, according to WAMC public radio. “For him to say we won’t do it is incorrect.”

Amid Gun Control Debate, Hochul Backs Delta

From the Morning Memo:

The lieutenant governor of Georgia on Monday raised eyebrows when he announced on Twitter he would reject tax breaks for the Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines should the company bow to social media pressure urging the firm to cut ties with the National Rifle Association.

“Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back,” wrote Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cargle.

That’s when New York’s lieutenant governor stepped in with a public response: “@Delta, as one of your most frequent flyers, know that the NY LG admires your principled stance. Let’s continue our great relationship.”

Echoing the Empire State Development program’s slogan that New York is “open for business” Hochul suggested the airline company its headquarters to New York “where you’re appreciated.”

The response comes amid growing pressure on companies that have done business and provided benefits to the NRA are being pushed to drop them as the gun-rights group opposes new efforts to regulate firearms following a high school shooting this month in Florida that killed 17 people.

United Airlines, along with Delta, announced over the weekend it would no longer provide discounts to NRA members.

As a member of Congress, Hochul received the backing of the NRA, which endorsed her during her 2012 re-election bid, losing to Republican Rep. Chris Collins. At the time, Hochul’s campaign attributed her support from the NRA to her time as Erie County clerk, where she streamlined the permitting process and provided staff and technology at gun shows to ensure sales went through safely.

But like U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who represented a conservative-leaning House district before becoming a statewide elected official, Hochul has emphasized support gun control measures as lieutenant governor.

She faces a challenge from her left this year from Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams in a Democratic primary. Queens Councilman Eric Ulrich, a Republican, has signaled he is considering a run, as well.

Lawmakers Push School Safety Bills

From the Morning Memo:

State lawmakers in recent days have been pushing a variety of bills meant to bolster — and fund — school safety in New York in the wake of a shooting at a Florida high school this month that killed 17 people.

Sen. Jim Tedisco is backing a bill that would fund armed resource officers with a special license plate.

Sen. Phil Boyle has introduced a bill that would require every school district New York to perform a threat assessment on their buildings, paid for by the state.

Sen. Marty Golden wants enhanced scanner technology introduced in schools that would detect guns being brought in.

And Sen. Simcha Felder is renewing a push to have New York City police officers stationed in schools.

All are measures backed by Republicans or in Felder’s case, a Democrat who conferences with the Senate GOP. The bills and proposals for school safety come as Democratic lawmakers have called for traditional gun control measures after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The issue is at something of an impasse: Republican-backed efforts to provide armed personnel in schools has been staunchly opposed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as is the New York State United Teachers union. Republican lawmakers, however, are unlikely to take up new gun control measures in New York, even as GOP elected officials nationally support efforts for increasing the age to buy a firearm to 21.

Still, with the state budget due in a month, it would not be surprising if some money is allocated for school safety measures that guard against another school shooting that does not include bringing guns into schools.

“A lot of schools are not aware of their vulnerabilities,” Boyle said.

“They need to know every entrance and exit and who has access to those areas. They should know what doors and windows are locked and unlocked, and who, if anyone, has the responsibility of monitoring those areas. The time for chance and uncertainty is over! The safety and well-being of our children and the staff of our schools are dependent upon what we know. Only then can we take appropriate, corrective steps to ensure effective safety and security measures.”

NYSUT President: Don’t Arm Teachers

As President Donald Trump calls for specially trained teachers to carry firearms in schools to guard against another mass shooting, the proposal is being rejected by New York’s statewide teachers union.

“The simple answer is no. Arming teachers in schools seems misguided at best,” said New York State United Teachers union President Andy Pallotta. “How would it appear? You’re teaching, in front of a classroom and you have a holster with a gun in it. How does that make it a beautiful learning environment? I can’t understand that.”

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida has renewed and heightened a national debate over gun control. Some are now calling for armed guards in schools even as a sheriff’s deputy stationed at the school resigned after it was revealed he took cover and did not respond to the shots being fired.

“I think each community would have to make a decision whether they would or wouldn’t want that to be part of their school environment,” Pallotta said. “Having more security in a school, we support that. We also know it didn’t work for the students, teachers and staff in Florida.”

Providing armed resources officers in schools would likely be an expensive program. Republican state lawmakers have called for more funding to add armed office in schools, an idea Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement he opposes.

“Instead, we should be addressing the root causes of gun violence by reducing the number of guns on our streets, limiting access to these deadly weapons and increasing mental health services to ensure the kind of healthy environment that will allow kids to grow and thrive.

Supporters of gun rights in New York say there should be someone stationed at schools to protect students and teachers.

“If you really want to protect the kids, protect the kids,” said Tom King of the New York Rifle And Pistol Association. “Put some type of armed professional in the school to prevent this from happening.”

But King is not pushing for armed teachers. Instead, he wants to see bolstered security, including metal detectors.

“I’m not advocating for teachers to have guns,” he said. “I’m advocating for someone in the schools to protect the kids. If a teacher wants to train for this or go for some type of special training to prepare for this, that’s fine. But that’s not what I’m advocating for.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo meanwhile has called the proposal to arm teachers “ludicrous.” This week Cuomo announced a multi-state coalition of northeast Democratic governors to crackdown on illegal weapons flowing into their states.

“The problem is I can’t protect the people of my state with just state laws because the guns come in from over the border,” Cuomo said.

Orange County Passing Its Sales Tax Surplus To Communities

Orange County in the most recent financial quarter received $3.8 million more in sales tax than it initially anticipated, passing that surplus to its municipalities.

The 5 percent surplus will be spread among 41 cities, towns and villages, deemed a credit positive by Moody’s, the credit rating agency which released a report on the sales tax revenue.

The agency found of the 13 Orange County municipal governments that are rated, sales tax revenues makes up more than 19 percent of their operating revenue on average.

But overall, the move will help financially struggling communities like Newburgh.

From the report:

“The affected entities have not announced how they plan to use the supplemental revenue. In some instances, narrow financial positions have forced Orange County local governments to contemplate significant expenditure reductions and layoffs, which the additional revenue may forestall to some extent. For example, the City of Newburgh is expected to lose federal funding that will result in the layoff of 12 firefighters by July 2018. According to county officials, the excess sales tax revenues would be enough to retain those employees through the end of the year. City officials, however, have not indicated how they will use the revenues.”

More Than 3,500 State Workers Paid More Than Cuomo

An updated database compiled by the Empire Center on Thursday found 3,568 people on the state government payroll make more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo, according to 2017 data.

The governor receives a $179,000 salary.

The highest paid state worker last year was Carlos Pato, the dean of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, who was paid $746,626. Indeed, many of the people in the top 10 highest paid state employees work for SUNY-affiliated hospitals.

The full database can be found here.

Sheriffs’ Association Wants Armed Resource Officers In Schools

The New York State Sheriffs’ Association on Thursday called on state lawmakers to approve funding for having at least one armed resource officer in New York schools.

The request comes amid a heightened debate over gun control following the killing of 17 people in a Florida high school shooting. The school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, did have an armed officer on duty at the time of the incident, but they were not near the shooting when it occurred, according to media reports.

“This will be an expensive undertaking,” said Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts, President of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, “but we owe it to our children, and their parents, to provide a safe place for education to take place.”

“We spend many millions of dollars to protect a relatively small number of judges across the state, as we should. Surely we can also find the money to protect our most defenseless people – the children we send off to school each day.”

The call to provide armed guards in schools echoes a push by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn who conferences with the Senate GOP, to have NYPD officers stationed in every school in New York City — a proposal that has been deemed too expensive. Other lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Marty Golden, have called for the installation of devices in schools that can detect guns.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, too, has called the idea of having armed personnel in schools unrealistic.

But the law enforcement officials insisted an armed police officer could make the difference during a violent incident.

“Sadly, many times when law enforcement arrives at the scene of a school shooting, everything is over and all the police officers can do is help the survivors,” said Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy. “With an armed officer on duty in the school, such an attack may be deterred, or at least terminated quickly and hopefully without loss of life.”

Environmental Groups Scrutinize Plant In Percoco Case

The corruption trial of a former close aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo has highlighted the construction of a natural gas power plant in Orange County and the lengths to which Joe Percoco allegedly used his influence to get it built.

“People, if they’re in the administration and if they’re at the right level, have unfettered ability to influence how contracts are being let,” said NYPIRG Legislative Director Blair Horner. “Apparently, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office, everyone knows that’s how that system plays out that way.”

Percoco faces charges that he received bribes in exchange for helping Competitive Power Ventures obtain necessary approval to build the plant. His wife received payments as well for what prosecutors say was a low-show job. The push for the plant was backed by Todd Howe, an Albany consultant with longtime ties to Cuomo and Percoco.

Also on trial is John Galbraith Kelly, accused of paying Percoco the bribes.

“That’s why they showered these individuals with individual gifts, or families with gifts and campaign contributions to the governor,” Horner said.

CPV in a statement noted none of the charges at the trial are related to the permits to build or operate the facility.

The project was previously challenged in court in 2014, but upheld. And the company points out the state Supreme Court in noted the permits for the CPV Energy Center were issued on a rational basis. The permits were also upheld again on appeal.

Challenges to the permit were found to have been “lacking any evidentiary value,” found Judge Catherine Bartlett. At the same time, federal energy regulators were similarly unpersuaded on appeal.

The charges related to CPV stem from an effort to gain financing for our project through an RFP that was never awarded.

Over the course of the trial in New York City, environmental groups have protested the plant, which they say has been hazardous to the area’s health. They want Cuomo to rescind state approval.

“I think it’s clear to New Yorkers that something’s rotten in Albany and we need to see a change,” said Food & Water Watch NY organizer Lauren Shindell, “and I think if Governor Cuomo wants to distance himself, he needs to pull the plug from the CPV power plant that was built on bribes.”

And for good-government groups, the trial has shown how it’s easy to circumvent checks on power and influence, even with the aides to a powerful elected official, underscoring the need for new transparency laws.

“When you do that and you don’t have the normal systems monitoring that process in place, people who behave badly think they can get away with it,” Horner said.

Cuomo himself has declined to comment on the trial as it proceeds, saying it would be inappropriate to do so.

The Budget’s Structural Challenges

From the Morning Memo:

New York is facing one of its largest budget shortfalls in nearly a decade this year, and deficits in coming years will get larger and larger — making life more challenging for lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“What that points to is we’re not solving the problem,” said Empire Center President EJ McMahon. “There’s a structural budget gap despite the governor’s efforts to restrain spending — which, while they’re not as effective as he claims, he’s been pretty restrained by historical standards.”

Cuomo has pushed for budgets that keep overall state spending under a 2 percent increase. His top budget advisor touts the voluntary spending cap as helping the state turn the corner fiscally.

“The bad old days of spending increases, of 7 percent, of 8 percent, are behind us, and New York has been controlling spending,” said Division of Budget Director Robert Mujica.

But independent budget analysts take a dimmer view of the spending caps put in place, saying the effort hasn’t gone far enough.

“The problem is he hasn’t been restrained enough, or we wouldn’t have these budget gaps,” McMahon said.

They also charge Cuomo has also been using a variety of gimmicks to close deficits and make it appear spending is being restrained.

“The governor touts his 2 percent spending cap, but if you dig deeper into the numbers, you start to see some accounting shifts and some other things that show spending growth is really closer to 4 percent most years,” said David Friedfel of the Citizens Budget Commission.

This year’s budget proposal includes $1 billion in new tax and fee increases aimed at closing the deficit, but the structural gaps will remain. That could make it harder for the state to respond to future economic downturns.

“It certainly will, and with the changes at the federal level, those things can get even worse,” Friedfel said.

Due to the timing of Passover and Easter, lawmakers this year have scheduled the budget to pass by March 29, several days before the end of the fiscal year.