Ethics Conversation Remains Muted In Albany

From the Morning Memo:

Talk about ethics reform in the new legislative session has been largely muted this year, even as a year filled with corruption trials involving prominent New York figures is underway, including the ongoing trial this week of Joe Percoco, a former close aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“I think because it is in New York City and because we are in the process of the budget hearings, the budget negotiations are overshadowing this trial by a longshot,” said League of Women Voters Legislative Director Jennifer Wilson.

Senate Democrats this week in Albany tried to change that.

“Every year, we talk about cleaning up Albany. Every year we are waiting for something to happen, and each year, the other side, frankly, does nothing,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Senate Democrats unveiled a package of measures designed to reform campaign finance laws and how lobbying is done — measures that have failed to gain much traction in their chamber.

“We know that New York is one of the worst campaign finance systems in the country,” said Sen. Mike Gianaris. “The effect of big money is especially pronounced here. And everyone likes to talk about Citizens United and what we’re doing to combat it. We have done little to nothing to have an impact.”

Cuomo himself devoted little time in his State of the State address to ethics reform, but did include proposals in his budget, such as new disclosure rules for digital advertising and constitutional amendments for term limits and limiting outside income of lawmakers.

“We want to see uniformity and we want to see action taken quickly, especially with the Percoco trial going on, but it’s just not happening right now,” Wilson said.

And for now, that means more corruption cases dominating the headlines in Albany and around New York.

“With New Yorkers seeing what happens here in Albany, I think people get tired of the headlines, they get tired of the trials, they get tired of corruption,” Stewart-Cousins said.

An ethics reform package has been approved virtually every year Cuomo has been governor.

Elia: ‘We Know This Is A Tough Budget Year’

Typically, a state budget hearing on focuses on school aid. But on Tuesday in Albany, the conversation turned to another issue: bullying in schools and whether parents should be notified.

“I don’t know what your position is on this, but I hope you would support the concept that we would notify the parents on an important issue,” said Sen. Jim Tedisco, “just like we would want them to be involved with other aspects of our educational system.”

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia noted it was a challenge, even as her office has sought to spend money on a campaign to focus on the issue.

“Parents don’t even know that these things are happening on social media and carrying into the school,” Elia said. “So I’m very focused on making sure parents are part of all of that.”

Beyond the bullying issue, spending for schools in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $168 billion budget is another challenge for the commissioner as and advocates sought more than the proposed $770 million increase.

“I think they are very concerned,” Elia said. “We know this is a tough budget year. I think the proposal that came from the Regents was balanced, and the fact that we knew that particularly with foundation aid and the focus it stayed in place and moved forward.”

Education advocates and the state teachers union says at least $1.5 billion is needed for schools just to keep existing services for teachers and students.

“[A billion and a half dollars] is what’s needed just to prevent cuts alone,” said Jasmine Gripper with the Alliance for Quality Education, “and if we want to maintain current services, $1.5 billion is the minimum. If we want to what is happening in schools, we need to be more.”

Education is typically one of the most expensive items in the budget aside from health care. It can also be one of the most heated, as evidenced by Assemblyman Charles Barron earlier in January protesting Cuomo’s budget address.

The budget is due to pass by March 31.

Airbnb Foe Launches Ad Campaign

From the Morning Memo:

The coalition that has opposed the expansion of Airbnb in New York on Thursday will rollout a new ad campaign to highlight the impact of the online booking site on rental and home prices in New York City.

The ad being released later today comes the same week as the ShareBetter coalition has released a report highlighting the impact of Airbnb on the city’s long-term rental market.

The ad will be part of a digital media and TV campaign that will start online during the Super Bowl on desktops and mobile devices, followed by placements on cable in New York City and Albany markets.

The digital portion of the campaign is being targeted on social media and local news sites toward New York City residents in neighborhoods were Airbnb has a strong presence.

The push comes as Airbnb critics this legislative session are backing a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal that would require online rental sites to disclose the address information on its listings to enforcement officials.

Updated: Airbnb responded in a statement from Josh Meltzer, the company’s head of New York public policy.

“These are the same tired tricks from a hotel cartel willing to say just about anything to protect their ability to price gouge consumers and build more hotels at the expense of housing for New Yorkers,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we regularly see these desperate tactics seeking to do nothing but distort the truth and create confusion while a serious conversation is taking place in Albany about fair, comprehensive rules for home sharing that would finally protect responsible New Yorkers.”

NYSUT Seeks $1.5B For Schools

From the Morning Memo:

The president of the state’s teachers union today will call for a $1.5 billion boost in education aid for schools, an increase from the $769 million proposed in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget, in order to maintain existing school services.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta is expected to make the call in testimony to a joint legislative panel on education spending.

At the same time, NYSUT wants $500 million in “targeted funding” that would be used to bolster struggling schools, add money for English language learner students, professional development and college and career counseling.

“Increasing Foundation Aid is particularly important,” Pallotta’s testimony states. “This aid is distributed pursuant to a formula that incorporates the cost of educating a student, the needs of students within each district, variations in regional costs and the district’s local ability to support the cost of educating its students. While we are cognizant of the state’s current fiscal situation, additional Foundation Aid is necessary.”

The governor’s $168 billion spending plan would boost foundation aid by $338 million.

NYSUT, meanwhile, backed a study to determine whether any changes to the funding formula is necessary, which would also take into consideration the impact on a small school district when a resident receives a windfall through inheritance or winning the lottery — a factor that throw aid formulations out of whack in areas with few wealthy people.

The state is grappling with a $4.4 billion shortfall, which has led to Cuomo proposing $1 billion in new taxes and fees to shore up revenue and avoid deep cuts or flat growth in education spending.

Education and health care remain the top spending areas in the state budget, which is due to pass by the end of March.

Payroll Tax Skepticism Continues

From the Morning Memo:

New York’s tax structure could be entirely rewritten in the coming weeks as Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushes for a potential payroll tax to replace the personal income tax.

The speed and the amount of time to do this, however, is being questioned.

“That’s a big question. I don’t know if we have the answer,” said Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. “Obviously, the governor has people working on it, but the legislature hasn’t weighed in yet.”

The payroll tax push comes as a way of working around a $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions in the federal tax law passed last month. Cuomo is expected to unveil a proposed payroll tax and changes to charitable deductions in budget amendments in February.

“We have to do something,” DiNapoli said. “Whether that’s the right strategy and which of those options is the right strategy, that’s what the deliberations are going on right now.”

And while the Legislature is yet to formally back a specific payroll tax, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has said it’s unlikely any deal can be reached in the near future.

The members of Flanagan’s GOP conference are similarly skeptical.

“When you’re talking about augmenting existing taxes with new taxes, that’s a problem in a state where we continue to see people on an outward migration,” said Sen. Joe Griffo.

The State Senate last week, meanwhile, sought to cushion the blow of the federal tax law with a bill that reconciles the state code with the changes in Washington — a change that saves New York taxpayers $1.5 billion.

Cuomo in a subsequent statement signaled he would be supportive of the changes contained in the bill.

“The Division of Budget says they have some ideas they want to discuss,” Griffo said. “We’re open to it as long as we find ways to make sure money is being put back into taxpayers’ pockets and not being kept at the governmental level.”

The bill allows taxpayers to deduct the full payment of their property taxes and changes the state tax code reference to the federal tax code to reflect the code that was in effect prior to Dec. 1 of last year.

“We haven’t weighed in on how to do it, but obviously reconciling New York’s tax code with the federal and how you decouple, that’s obviously going to be a big part of the negotiations,” DiNapoli said.

The budget is due March 31.

Hochul: Women Being Heard On Sexual Harassment Reform

From the Morning Memo:

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday said women in elected office are being heard on the push to reform the state’s sexual harassment laws.

“I’ve worked very closely with this administration to make sure the voices of women are heard,” she told reporters after an event in Buffalo. “I will tell you we have some very engaged women elected officials, assemblymembers and senators who are bringing some creative solutions to make New York state will be a leader in eradicating sexual harassment.”

Proposals from lawmakers in both parties have been made to overhaul how the state handles sexual harassment claims, including an end to confidential settlements and a ban on taxpayer money used to fund them.

But the changes are likely to be negotiated by four men: the governor, Assembly speaker and the Senate co-leaders.

Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein has been accused himself of forcibly kissing a former aide, an allegation he’s denied and has called for an investigation. Klein has said he backs the proposed sexual harassment law changes outlined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Hochul told reporters the negotiations are being worked on as a collaborative effort.

“I’m proud of the work that we’re doing,” she said, “men and women together.”

Child Victim Act Debate Resurfaces

The debate over a bill that would make it easier for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits is back at the Capitol this year, kicked off in part by Gov. Andrew Cuomo included the measure in 2018 agenda.

Survivor groups who have pushed for the legislation on Thursday sought to meet with Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan after sending a letter to his office on the issue last month.

“Flanagan’s refusal to meet with us, or even explain his opposition to the Child Victims Act, speaks volumes about his character and priorities,” said Beth McCabe, survivor, advocate and member of New Yorkers Against Hidden Predators. “Clearly, he’d rather keep protecting hidden predators than defend innocent children. It is time for the Senate to stop their obstruction, and follow Governor Cuomo’s lead by supporting victims who have been silenced by a broken system for far too long.”

The bill, which would extend the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse cases, is also being debated as part of lawsuit reform.

The Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York earlier Thursday sought changes to the bill that would develop a sliding scale for legal fees. The group also raised other issues with the bill, including the one-year look back window. Still, the group insisted it backed more money going to survivors, not for their attorneys.

“There is evidence that many of the advocates for this legislation have financial connections to the law firms that profit from them,” said Stebbins. “While we do not support the one-year look-back window, we strongly believe that more money should go to the victims, not their lawyers. If we are going to do this, let’s make sure the money goes to the right people.” His comments refer to the one-year window in which lawsuits can be filed against an institution, no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. The window is the most controversial aspect of the legislation.

Negotiating Sexual Harassment Changes In Albany

From the Morning Memo:

New York lawmakers are considering changing state laws to address sexual harassment and misconduct in the halls of government, but those changes will likely be negotiated by four powerful men, the governor, the Senate co-leaders and the Assembly speaker.

“I always think women should be in every negotiation. We’re 52 percent of the population of New York state so I don’t see any reason for us to be locked out of the room,” said state Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.

Among those four men is Jeff Klein. The Independent Democratic Conference leader is himself facing a sexual misconduct allegation, which is under investigation by ethics regulators.

Klein has insisted the incident in which he kissed a then-legislative aide outside of a bar in Albany never happened and has called for an investigation.

“As far as the governor’s proposal, I think it’s an important start,” Klein said last week. “I think we have to strengthen our harassment laws and I intend to push to make that happen.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants more money to strengthen investigations by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a regulator that has been criticized as flawed. Known as JCOPE, the panel is reviewing the allegation against Klein.

“I would argue we should be providing independent counsel to do these kinds of investigations with timelines for making the recommendations and conclusions,” Krueger said.

Cuomo has elevated women in his office to top positions, including Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, and Chief of Staff Linda Lacewell. Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor and Cuomo’s running mate, is one of only two women elected to statewide office in New York.

Senate Republicans have their own package of proposals that they say go further than what Cuomo has proposed, which includes an end to confidential settlements as long as the identity of the survivor is protected.

“It not only handles the Harvey Weinstein predator people that are out there, but it protects everyday New Yorkers,” said state Sen. Cathy Young, a Republican from Olean. “It ends secret settlements and it also provides a definition of sexual harassment in state law.

While Cuomo has proposed some anti-harassment measures in his $168 billion budget plan, the issue could still be under discussion after the spending proposal is approved.

As for the larger issue, for women to have more influence in the negotiations, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic said it’s a sign more women should be in positions of power.

“Over the last year, we’ve seen thousands of women, millions of women mobilized in response to the historic indifference of men in power to deal with sexual harassment. That’s changing,” she said. “We really need to elect more women in powerful positions and leadership positions to address things like sexual harassment.”

Albany is no stranger to sexual misconduct. In recent years before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, seven state lawmakers resigned or left office in disgrace after they were accused of harassment.

Labor Dispute Ends At Albany Hilton

A labor dispute that began last year between workers and management at a hotel not far from the state Capitol in Albany was resolved on Wednesday after a contract was ratified.

The dispute led to state lawmakers from both parties to boycott the Albany Hilton, which has been the site used for political and industry gatherings and housing for lawmakers in town for the legislative session.

“I thank all of our union affiliates who supported their brothers and sisters by joining them on the picket line and I applaud all those who did the right thing and boycotted the hotel during this fight,” said AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento. “Their support helped to send a powerful message that when working people stand together their collective voice will always be heard.”

The picket line had been visited by a number of elected officials, including Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

The end of the dispute is also a win for the small but influential Hotel Trades Council.

“I am also very proud of the dedicated HTC members who maintained a presence outside the Hilton Albany for four months, never once wavering during this labor dispute,” Cilento said. “I encourage our affiliates to continue showing their support to our brothers and sisters of the HTC by resuming business with the Hilton Albany now that the boycott has been lifted.”

Vapor Lobby Steps Up Its Effort

As state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo back efforts to regulate vaporizing products like e-cigarettes in New York, the industry is stepping up its efforts to push back.

The New York State Vapor Association on Wednesday in a statement pointed to a study casting doubt on whether there is sufficient research to suggest e-cigarettes have a negative health impact. The report does not appear to suggest that using an e-cigarette is safe.

The group highlighted this passage to the report, which itself is behind a pay wall.

“Thus, among adult populations,” the report states, “to the extent that e-cigarette use promotes either reduction or complete abstinence from combustible tobacco smoking, e-cigarettes may help to reduce health risks. E-cigarettes could similarly reduce risks to youth who take up e-cigarettes instead of combustible tobacco cigarettes.”

The pushback comes as Cuomo has proposed a tax on products like e-cigarettes, an excise fee of 10 cents per fluid milliliter. The move is meant to equalize the tax placed on traditional tobacco products. Lawmakers like Sen. David Carlucci have backed a tax bill, while there has also been a successful effort to ban the devices from being used indoors.

“With the number of bills proposed in New York in the 2018 legislative session which would severely limit adult smokers’ access to vapor products, we hope the New York legislature will take a long hard look at this federal report before taking risks with New Yorkers lives,” said Michael Frennier, the group’s president.