Andrea Stewart-Cousins

ASC: Education Commission ‘Unworkable’

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement released Wednesday afternoon called the proposed commission to implement education reforms “unworkable.”

In the statement, the Yonkers Democrat said any panel discussing potential reforms for the state’s public schools should include a representation that’s balanced, not just a “select few.”

“As discussions regarding a commission to reform New York’s education system continue and details begin to emerge, it is becoming clear that this potential commission is unworkable. Any commission created to review and amend our education system must be balanced and include representation from all stakeholders, not simply a select few. The priorities of this commission should be to improve the quality of education our students receive, and not simply continue the demonization of teachers.”

The details of the commission are not yet finalized, though Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Tuesday with reporters confirmed such a panel is under discussion.

The commission could be tasked with developing new criteria for teacher evaluations and include appointees from the Legislature and governor’s office.

Cuomo is still linking increased education funding to enacting policies.

‘The Only Place This Mother Will Appear’

The state budget in New York is negotiated behind closed doors. And it’s always been conducted by men.

But Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins wants to change that.

“We can’t pretend that the overall budget process is not greatly flawed,” Stewart-Cousins said on Thursday at a meeting of top lawmakers in the Legislature.

At a meeting of top lawmakers nicknamed the mothership, Stewart-Cousins made her pitch to be included in the more high-stakes meetings with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Apparently the mothership is the only place this mother will appear negotiating the budget,” Stewart-Cousins said.

The Democratic leader has made the push to be included in the talks in previous budget seasons. But now she’s getting some powerful backing from lawmakers in the black and hispanic legislative caucus.

“We saw an inequity,” said Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, a Queens Democrat.

Black and hispanic lawmakers sent a letter to Cuomo calling on him to include Stewart-Cousins in the talks, which at the moment include Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein.

“Mr. Klein has a smaller representation but somehow manages to get in the room,” said Aubry.

Once the co-leader of a IDC-GOP coalition, Klein no longer holds the title of Senate co-president and does not have veto power over bills after Republicans won control of the chamber.

“Her exclusion is strange relative to trying to have the voices that reflect the state of New York in the room,” said Aubry.

Skelos and Heastie both insist it’s up to Cuomo as to who is invited to the budget meetings, with neither raising issues with including Stewart-Cousins or Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb.

“I’ve indicated I have no objection to that,” Skelos said.

Heastie added: “The governor is the one calling the leaders meetings and again I ask you guys to ask him. You keep peppering me and Senator Skelos about why he doesn’t invite her to the meeting. You should ask him.”

Aubry: Including Stewart-Cousins Addresses ‘Inequity’

Queens Democratic Assemblyman Jeff Aubry on Thursday added his voice to the call to include Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the budget talks with top lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“It’s odd that the one African-American woman, the one minority women, who represents a large number of members, would not be allowed into those budget negotiations,” Aubry said. “I can’t see why that would be.”

The Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus today called on Cuomo to include Stewart-Cousins, the first black woman to lead a legislative conference in Albany, into the talks.

Aubry, in an interview, pointed to the inclusion of Sen. Jeff Klein, the Bronx lawmaker who leads the Independent Democratic Conference, in the discussions.

“We saw an inequity,” Aubry said. “Andrea Stewart-Cousins has not been apart of the budget negotiations though Jeff Klein who is the leader of the independent Democrats.”

The caucus support for Stewart-Cousins to be included in the meetings is part of a broader campaign to have her included in the meetings, an effort that began when Klein was invited this year, despite no longer holding the Senate co-presidency.

Klein’s IDC and the Senate Republican conference remain in a coalition alliance this year, though do not share power as they did during the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions.

“It would seem to me that her exclusion is strange relative to trying to have the voices in the state of New York in the room,” Aubry said.

He added the caucus support for Stewart-Cousins extends to Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb.

“We also believe that the minority leader here in the Assembly ought to be apart of that relative to his representation,” Aubry said.

But the push also coincides with the election of the state’s first African-American speaker of the Assembly, Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie.

“We are making history all over the place with our speaker, with a new Asian regent,” Aubry said. “Why wouldn’t this obviously capable and extraordinary woman be a part of the process of determining how the budget is determined in this state?”

Stewart-Cousins: Ahem, What About Me? (Updated)

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is (not surprisingly) displeased by the fact that she and her fellow minority leader, Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb, are being left out of the backroom budget talks that again include IDC Leader Jeff Klein, even though he no longer has a power-sharing deal with the Senate Republicans.

After the governor revealed at his Red Room cabinet meeting that the four-men-in-a-room budget talks established when the IDC and GOP split control of the chamber would continued, Stewart-Cousins responded by suggesting the time has come to get rid of this secretive negotiation process altogether.

“As we discuss ways to clean up Albany and reform state government, a perfect place to start is the much maligned three/four men in a room​ budgetary process,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “In the past we had been led to believe that membership was based on constitutional roles and not simply the whims of the governor.”

“Since membership has now been expanded, I would hope all legislative conference leaders will be ​included, giving all New Yorkers a voice in the budget. The more diversity and light we can shine on this process the better it is for everyone.”

After the GOP won its slim – but complete – majority in the 2014 elections, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Klein renegotiated the relationship between their two conferences so that it’s something less than their previous status, but something more than the minority-majority relationship between Skelos and Stewart-Cousins.

Cuomo said Klein in being included in this year’s leaders meetings – the first of which is taking place right now – due to his “relationship” with Skelos, and the fact that he can deliver the votes of his five-member conference, which gives the GOP some breathing room in the closely-divided chamber.

The three men in a room process was the subject of some very public criticism by US Attorney Preet Bharara, who mocked the practice in a speech delivered the day after the arrest on corruption charges of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and said it is the root of Albany’s many problems.

“I have a little bit of a hard time getting my head around this concept of three men in a room,” Bharara said while speaking at New York Law School. “Maybe it’s just me. I’m an immigrant from India, which is overpopulated, so for me, it’s like a billion men in a room.”

“…Why three men? Can there be a woman? Do they always have to be white? How small is the room that they can only fit three men? Is it three men in a closet? Are there cigars? Can they have Cuban cigars now? After a while, doesn’t it get a little gamey in that room?”

Bharara told The Buffalo News in a subequent interview that he keeps the book “Thee Men in a Room” by former Sen. Seymour Lachman on his desk and has met with the ex-Democratic lawmaker to discuss the frustrations he experienced while serving in Albany.

UPDATE: Stewart-Cousins is getting some backup here from Citizen Action of NY. The organization’s executive director, Karen Scharff, released the following statement:

“It’s hard to understand ​Governor Cuomo’s ​reasons for excluding the only woman legislative leader from a seat at the decision-making table. Leader Stewart-Cousins has been a champion for New York’s working families and ​is the leader of 24 senators while Senator Klein only leads 5. Governor Cuomo should open the process so that the voices of all leaders, and the voters that they represent, can be heard.”

Senate Democrats Release Windfall Proposals

Senate Democrats this week unveiled a package of proposals for spending the state’s $5.1 billion surplus that includes tax relief for the poor, the purchase of body cameras for law enforcement and a $1.1 billion infrastructure program.

“The funds from our state’s current surplus must be directed towards spurring future economic growth across New York State while giving those who work hard a fair shot at improving their standing in life,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.

The Senate Democrats also want to spend $400 million on a mixed-income housing program and $325 million for construction of new affordable housing.

Additionally, the conference backs using $75 million in tax credits for the New York State Homes & Community Renewal program that would offer additional credit above the current $56 million cap.

For body cameras, the conference would spend $50 million in reimbursements to state and local law enforcement, with $300 million being spent on local infrastructure improvements.

For the Tappan Zee Bridge, $275 million would used to help pay for its replacement as a loan without interest.

“Through smart investments in our hardworking families and local communities we can create greater opportunities for all New Yorkers and build a more enduring, thriving and fair economy,” Stewart-Cousins said. “These surplus funds must be utilized to help low-wage workers, invest in affordable housing, rebuild our state’s infrastructure and prepare for the challenges of the future as these are all common sense ways to grow the economy and ensure New York State thrives in the years ahead. I encourage my colleagues in the Legislature to join with the Senate Democratic Conference to ensure these funds are utilized to lay the foundation for our state’s future economic prosperity.”

New York gained the $5.1 billion through windfall settlements with major financial institutions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $142 billion budget would use some of the settlement money to help pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge as well as expand broadband Internet service in urban and rural areas of the state.

Senate Democrats: Pass Ethics Bills Now, Not In Budget (Updated)

Senate Democrats on Monday unveiled a package of ethics reform legislation that would cap outside income, strengthen disclosure requirements and close a loophole in campaign finance laws that guarantees unlimited contributions from limited liability corporations.

The ethics push comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to push his own ethics overhaul legislation in the budget negotiations – even if it means a late spending plan – which would be the first of his tenure as governor.

“I know the governor is frustrated, we’re frustrated,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat. “I think the most important thing is to make sure the people of New York know the people who they sent to work for them, are actually working for them.”

Should lawmakers and the governor fail to agree to ethics legislation, a shutdown of state government could be triggered.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to hold up the budget for it,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Obviously, a lot of work has to be done. We’re hoping to grease the wheel by supporting the fact that ethics is of paramount importance and has to happen.”

The latest iteration of ethics reform comes after Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver was arrested last month on corruption charges. Silver was forced to resign as speaker of the Assembly – a post he had held since 1994.

Stewart-Cousins at a Capitol news conference said the bills her conference is proposing should not wait for the budget process to be completed, but instead be taken up now.

“We firmly believe that we need to pass these ethics reforms now,” she said. “We need to pass our bills now. It shouldn’t have to be part of the budget conversation at all, to be quite honest.”

Cuomo has fended off criticism that the Silver arrest shows the shutdown of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission was premature, saying the panel worked the way it should have.

The panel was shuttered after Cuomo struck a deal with the Legislature on new ethics and anti-corruption measures in the state budget last year.

Stewart-Cousins this afternoon said the panel’s closure was beside the point.

“I always say had we as the Legislature taken up that charge when it was clearly before us, there would be no need for a Moreland Commission,” she said.

Updated: Senate Republicans weighed in.

“Rather than issue press releases and grandstand, Senate Republicans are working with the Governor and the Assembly to get real results and real reforms that improve our state’s ethics and disclosure laws,” said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif.

Stewart-Cousins Fires Shot Across Cuomo’s Bow On Education

In a rare public break with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins blasted the “demonizing of our teachers” in a statement released on Thursday morning.

Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, called for increasing resources — aka more money — in the state budget for school districts and not “scapegoating teachers.”

“There has been too much demonizing of our teachers lately. As a former teacher, I understand firsthand the obstacles that many New York educators are facing and the resources they so desperately need in order to help our children,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Schools’ resources must be based on the school district needs. While we all agree that there are more improvements to be made to our education system, scapegoating teachers will not provide those improvements.”

The comment comes as Cuomo seeks to create a more stringent teacher evaluation system statewide, a delay in teacher tenure and a strengthening of charter schools through increased per pupil tuition spending.

The governor backs a plan that would provide tax credits to those who make donations to public and private schools — a move that is opposed by the state’s teachers union.

Cuomo’s budget calls for bonuses for teachers tied to good performance reviews.

The governor is proposed a $1.1 billion funding increase in education spending in his $142 billion budget, but much of that money is tied to adopting his measures.

Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, is knocking Cuomo’s education reform push as Speaker Sheldon Silver is being pushed out of the Assembly’s leadership post on Monday.

Uncertainty over the future of the Assembly’s leadership push is leading to concerns among education advocates that the governor’s proposals won’t have a strong opponent in the budget negotiations.

The fight over education policy this legislative session is really an extension of the election year, when Democrats were backed by the statewide New York State United Teachers union and Senate Republicans were supported by wealthy proponents of charter schools.

Stewart-Cousins: More Time To Be Spent On Ethics Reform

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in an interview on Capital Tonight Thursday evening said expects more time to be spent on ethics legislation following the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

“We’re were talking about the budget, but now we’re going to spend more time on talking about ethics reform and things that are quite frankly sad and disturbing,” the Yonkers Democrat said.

Stewart-Cousins, however, would not weigh in on whether Silver should step down as speaker as he faces five counts of corruption and fraud filed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office.

“I think Preet Bharara said it best people are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” she said, adding that the leadership of the Assembly is up to the Democratic conference in that house. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”

Stewart-Cousins also said the now-shuttered Moreland Commission only came about because lawmakers refused to go along with ethics reform, even as her mainline conference was largely aligned with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, especially when it came to public financing.

“I can’t predict what we would see or would not see,” she said. “But the reality is the Moreland Commission was a creature of the governor because of the Legislature’s refusal — certainly in my house on the Senate side — to do any ethics reform.”

To be fair, the Assembly didn’t go along with all of Cuomo’s reform agenda, either, which led to the formation of the anti-corruption panel that would be closed less than a year later following a deal on ethics legislation.

“There were things that two houses agreed on on certain ethics reform, certain campaign finance reform, could never get a hearing on,” she said.

Senate Dems: Ready To Pass Ethics Legislation

The Democratic conference in the state Senate backs a passing new ethics and campaign-finance law changes “immediately,” Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement released Tuesday.

The call comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he would not consider backing a legislative pay increase for state lawmakers if they fail to approve long-sought changes to the state’s campaign-finance laws, including the creation of the public funding of political campaigns and the closing of the so-called LLC loophole.

Cuomo also wants to see lawmakers approve restrictions on outside income.

The governor in an interview on Monday said that even with the carrot of a pay increase dangling in front of lawmakers, the Legislature is balking at the reforms he’s pushing.

“The Senate Democratic Conference has consistently called for common sense ethics and campaign reforms and we agree with Governor Cuomo in his call for passing these initiatives immediately,” Stewart-Cousins said in the statement. “As with all progressive legislation, including the NY-SAFE Act, the Compassionate Care Act, and Marriage Equality, the Senate Democratic Conference stands ready to provide the necessary support to ensure passage. Ethics and campaign finance reforms should not be a partisan issue. We will continue our fight to clean up Albany and pass strong ethics reforms and we look forwarding to working with any state leader who will join us in these efforts.”

Senate Republicans, poised to take the full majority at the end of this month in the chamber, released a statement last week indicating they would support additional reform measures, but did not provide much detail.

Talks over the weekend on a special session stalled, though state lawmakers have not ruled out coming back to Albany in a post-Christmas special session.

Stewart-Cousins Re-Elected Senate Minority Leader

From the Morning Memo:

Andrea Stewart-Cousins was re-elected on Tuesday the leader of the Senate Democrats following a vote in Albany by her conference.

The Yonkers Democrat, first elected to the Senate in 2006, was unanimously re-elected to lead the conference, save for Bronx Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., who was neither present for the vote or cast a proxy vote, a Senate Democratic spokesman said.

The first woman to lead a legislative conference in Albany, Stewart-Cousins in a phone interview said she has no plans to shake up the Senate Democrats’ leadership team, meaning deputy leader Mike Gianaris remains her top lieutenant.

“If it’s not broken you don’t fix it,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We have been able to work well together. I think we’ve worked well together in terms of leadership. We have a cohesive leadership team that is very, very focused on why we’re here.”

Democrats came up short in last month’s elections, losing three key upstate races and failing to unseat incumbents who hold all of the Long Island Senate districts.

Still, Stewart-Cousins said she was happy the progress the conference has made under leadership.

After all, she took charge of the Democratic conference following several years of leadership turmoil. Democrats ousted Brooklyn Sen. John Sampson in favor of Stewart-Cousins, one of the first Democratic leaders in the Senate to not represent one of the five New York City boroughs.

Sampson now faces embezzlement charges, and his immediate predecessor as Democratic conference leader, Malcolm Smith, is under indictment for attempting to bribe his way onto the New York City mayoral ballot as a Republican.

Sampson won his primary challenge, Smith lost to Sen.-elect Leroy Comrie.

But Stewart-Cousins says her conference has stabilized over the last several years, which has also seen a group of breakaway Democrats form a coalition with Senate Republicans, essentially denying the party a governing majority in the chamber.

“I think we’ve moved through the storm and each of us individually and together are stronger,” she said. “This is a great group of committed people and I think we’ve gone a long way to prove that. We’ve grown as a conference, we’ve grown as individuals. We’re certainly ready to govern, we’re cognizant of the realitty that we have a lot of offer.”

She also reiterated her priorities for next year, including continuing to boost the women’s agenda — passage of which seems doubtful with Republicans fully in charge of the Senate — as well as infrastructure spending and reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

Stewart-Cousins and her Democratic colleagues were in Albany on Tuesday to push for the creation of a special investigator to probe deaths of unarmed civilians by the police.

But whether all state lawmakers return this month for a special session for a potential legislative pay raise remains to be seen.

Stewart-Cousins said time does appear to be running out to convene both houses by next week.

“I’ve not been privy to any conversations about a special session; of course if there is one we’ll be there,” she said. “As the clock ticks on with no definitive time, it seems like it’s more difficult to pull it off before the end of the year.”