Weinstein to Succeed Farrell as Ways and Means Chair

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has tapped the first woman to serve as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, selecting Brooklyn’s Helene Weinstein to succeed retired Assemblyman Harman “Denny” Farrell Jr., of Manhattan, in the post.

“One of the longest-serving members of the Assembly, Helene has made immeasurable contributions to the residents of New York state,” said Heastie in a press release. “Her vast experience in the People’s House and extensive knowledge of the state budget process will guide the Assembly majority as we continue to pursue our Families First agenda.”

With this selection, the chairs of the budget oversight committees of both the Senate and Assembly are now headed by women. The Senate Republicans were the first to break the glass ceiling when they elevated Sen. Cathy Young, of Olean, to chair the Finance Committee in January 2016. Young also heads the political fundraising arm of her conference, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, or SRCC.

The ranking Senate Democrat on the Finance Committee is Liz Krueger, of Manhattan. She has held that position since 2011, taking over when its former occupant, ex-Sen. Carl Kruger, also of Brooklyn, was indicted on corruption charges.

Weinstein, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1980, was also the first woman to chair the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, a position she has held since 1994. At the time, she was the first woman of any legislative conference to take their party’s top spot on the Finance Committee.

Weinstein said she is “humbled by the historic opportunity to lend new perspective and solutions to the needs facing our families and communities,” adding:

“I have always believed that diversity in leadership is critical to achieving a government that is both inclusive and responsive to today’s challenges. Working together over the years, the Assembly has made tremendous strides in improving the quality of life and economic opportunities for all New Yorkers and I know that we have much more to do.”

“I am proud that I have been chosen to succeed former Assemblyman Denny Farrell, a true legend who guided the Assembly Ways and Means Committee for many years with great skill. I want to thank Speaker Heastie for this honor and I look forward to working with all my Assembly colleagues and partners in government in this new role.”

Weinstein has been a Ways and Means Committee member since 1993, so she has inside knowledge of how it operates. A lot of senior Democrats were interested in this post, since the committee more or less holds the purse strings for everything budget related. Also, the committee has jurisdiction over all legislation introduced in the Assembly that would impact spending or revenues at the State or local level.

Another perk: The Ways and Means Committee chairmanship carries a pretty hefty stipend, known as a lulu in Albany parlance, of $34,000. (That’s just $500 behind what Majority Leader Joe Morelle gets for his leadership post). The job also has a sizable staff – bigger than any other Assembly committee chair.

Heastie joked during my last interview with him that pretty much every member of the conference wanted the job, though Assembly Health Committee Chair Dick Gottfried, the longest-serving member of the Assembly, insisted that he’s perfectly happy where he has been for the past 30 years. Also mentioned, due to his seniority, was Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lenthol, who heads the Codes Committee.

Weinstein’s elevation means the Judiciary Committee job is open, and that sparks a process known as “churn,” in which various lower ranked Assembly chairs jockey for position and move up the leadership ladder.

Fellow Assembly Dems Help Brindisi Raise Congressional Cash

They may be sorry to see him go, assuming he’s able to defeat incumbent Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney next year, but Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi’s Democratic colleagues are lining up to help raise cash for what’s expected to be an expensive and divisive race.

Assemblyman John McDonald, a Cohoes Democrat, forwarded his supporters an invitation to a Sept. 26 event being hosted for Brindisi by a number of upstaters – including Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who is fresh off a Democratic primary victory that all but assures her a second four-year term in November.

“I rarely send this type of email, however I am doing so today because of the respect I have for my colleague Anthony Brindisi who is running for Congress in an area adjacent to ours,” McDonald wrote.

“He is smart, young and hard working. He is a true advocate for both education and the hard-working middle class. Please consider supporting Anthony. He will be a great asset to the New York delegation in Washington.”

The event, which will take place at the Albany Center Gallery on Broadway, costs between $35 (for young professionals) to $2,700 (the maximum contribution) to attend. Members of the host committee, which is still in formation, include a number of other Assembly Democrats from both upstate and NYC.

The invitation describes Brindisi as a “top pick-up opportunity for the Democrats in NY-22.”

Though the race only recently got underway, it’s already taken a negative turn, which Brindisi and Tenney, who also used to be a member of the Assembly, trading barbs on everything from Brindisi’s father’s legal representation of mobsters to a town hall the congressman is scheduled to hold this coming Tuesday.

Tenney is already seeking to use Brindisi’s ties to fellow Democrats – including Gov. Andrew Cuomo – against him, calling him a “slick politician” who “pretends to be a moderate.”

Though Brindisi has insisted that he will shy away form “name calling,” his allies and outside interests seeking to assist him in ousting Tenney, will no doubt spend considerable time – and cash – playing up her steadfast support for President Donald Trump.

They will surely seek to paint her as too right wing for a district that was previously represented by a moderate Republican, Richard Hanna, who refused to endorse Tenney in the 2016 election cycle after she tried unsuccessfully to beat him in the 2014 GOP primary.

NYPIRG Reviews 2017 Session

NYPIRG has released its annual review of the state legislative session in Albany, finding this year was among the sessions that saw the least number of legislative agreements as evidenced by identical bills passing on the floor of both houses, otherwise known as “same-as” measures.

Between January and July of this year, 998 bills were passed in the Democrat-controlled state Assembly, while the GOP-led Senate approved 1,896. Only 606 same-as bills were passed in both houses, while 15,406 bills were introduced overall so far in this two-year session.

That’s compared to 1,041 Assembly bills, 1,752 Senate bills, and 618 same-as bills passed in 2016, while the number of overall bills introduced was 16,649.

The decline in the number of bills that passed in the 2017 session tracks the overall historical trend, NYPIRG said. Since 1995, the five years that saw the fewest bills pass both houses are 2009, 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017.

When the average passage of two-house bills during the tenures of various governors is compared, Cuomo has so far seen the lowest number – 643 – while the highest – 1,356 – was during the time former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller spent in office.

Although Cuomo has been criticized for relying on messages of necessity to push controversial measures through the Legislature, most notably the gun control bill known as the SAFE Act, his use of his power to expedite the legislative process by circumventing the three-day bill “aging” period has actually declined compared to his predecessors.

There has been little change since last year in the number of bills approved by Cuomo, though his use of his veto pen has increased.

NYPIRG’s full assessment of the most recent session as compared to other sessions appears below. The organization has also updated its legislative profiles for 2017, which can be found here.

NYPIRG's 2017 session review. by liz_benjamin6490 on Scribd

Yuh-Line Niou, Brooklyn Dems Back Kavanagh for Senate

Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who was mentioned as a potential candidate to fill former Sen. Daniel Squadron’s seat, today announced she is throwing her support to her Assembly colleague, Brian Kavanagh, though she pledged to work to reform the special election process to give voters more of a choice in candidate selection.

“I plan to work on legislation in the Assembly to bring real democracy to the forefront of special elections and fix this broken system,” the assemblywoman wrote in a statement released this afternoon.

“…while the current rules are far from ideal, lower Manhattan needs experienced, honest, and thoughtful leaders to represent us at all levels. That’s why it is critical that we elect my friend and Assembly colleague, Brian Kavanagh, to the State Senate.”

Niou cited Kavanagh’s “vast amount of state government experience,” including his efforts as part of a group spearheaded by former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg to push for gun control.

She also said she believes Kavanagh will be a “bulwark against Trump’s extremist agenda, standing with me on the frontlines to protect our progressive values and combat Trump’s divisive policies.”

It appears that Democratic Party leaders are coalescing behind Kavanagh in advance of today’s vote by party leaders to select a candidate to run in the yet to be called special election.

He has landed the support of Brooklyn Democratic Chairman Frank Seddio, though the reformist New Kings Democrats are backing Paul Newell, a district leader who unsuccessfully challenged then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a 2007 primary. Newell also has the support of the Downtown Independent Democrats, of which he is a member.

Kavanagh is one of five Democrats who have announced their intention to seek the seat Squadron abruptly gave up early last month.

Also running are: former NYC Council member Alan Gerson; Diego Segalini, a Lower East Side resident who’s executive vice president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council; and former Brooklyn prosecutor Eileen Naples.

Niou won a six-way race in September 2016 for the Democratic nomination for the seat Silver was forced to relinquish in 2015 due to his federal corruption conviction.

Among those she defeated were Newell and former Assemblywoman Alice Cancel, whom the disgraced speaker helped install to represent his district via an April special election in which Niou ran unsuccessfully on the Working Families Party line.

Early Legislative Pay? Not Quite, Based On BoE Interpretation

The Empire Center in a report released on Thursday pointed to what appeared to be an unusual process: Seating new members of the Assembly to vacant seats in the weeks before a new session is held, allowing them to collect thousands of dollars in extra pay.

The report was pushed back on by Assembly spokesman Michael Whyland, who pointed out the new members were filling out the unexpired terms of their predecessors after being elected in November. In other words, the Assembly says the new member can indeed be sworn in, vote, and collect their legislative pay before those who were elected alongside them in regular November elections.

The Assembly pointed to a 2014 meeting with the state Board of Elections to bolster their case. At that meeting, the board adopted a policy in which “an office appears on the ballot just once for the full term and that when that legislature is elected to the full term, it is expected that the Senate and the Assembly will seat them to fill the vacancy for the final 2 months.”

The think tank in a follow up on Friday morning conceded this is a “grey area” of election law.

“At the very least, the issue remains sufficiently ambiguous to demand a statutory clarification,” the Empire Center said.

New Lawmakers Get Paid, Before Taking Office

Newly elected state lawmakers are paid before they are actually sworn into the state Assembly, according to a report released Thursday by an Albany-based think tank.

The Empire Center found three recently elected lawmakers, Republicans Assemblyman Joe Errigo and Assemblywoman Melissa Miller and Democratic Assemblyman Clyde Vanel were paid $5,648 more than their fellow class of freshmen lawmakers after being added early to the state payroll, according to an analysis of pay data.

In those cases, the three lawmakers were elected to seats that had become vacant before Election Day. Since the election held Nov. 8 determined who would be seated in the upcoming 2017-18 session of the Legislature, the members the members would not have been eligible to vote or perform an official duty if, say, a special election had been called before Jan. 1.

The Empire Center found instances dating back to 2014 when at least nine other members of the Assembly were paid an additional $3,703 under a similar practice.

Mike Whyland, a spokesman for the Assembly, in an email wrote the Empire Center’s analysis is incorrect.

Here is his explanation:

“They really should check their facts because they are just plain wrong and are misleading people. The State Board of Elections, in a unanimous policy decision, directed the local BOEs to list the public office up for election once, not twice, even if there is a vacancy in an unexpired term.

“It recognized that each house of the legislature would determine when to seat the winner in such circumstances. The Speaker determined that the vacant seats should be filled as soon as possible so people in the Assembly District didn’t go any longer without representation. In addition, if there was a special legislative session these members could have voted. They should stop misleading the public if they want to be taken seriously.”

Updated: Ken Giradin of the Empire Center sent over the minutes from the referenced Board of Elections meeting, saying it proves the point the initial report makes, not the Assembly’s assertion. The relevant portion appears on page 2:

VOTE to approve the following directive to the county boards of elections: As many are aware, there are currently 12 vacant Senate and Assembly seats throughout the State. The State Board has been asked on numerous occasions whether the office must appear twice—once for the unexpired term and once for the full term—on this year’s general election ballot. After a review of the relevant statutes, the State Board is of the opinion that since no Special Elections have been called to fill those vacancies, that such office should be filled at the upcoming General Election and the office should appear only ONCE on the ballot, for the full term. We will immediately make a notification to all interested parties should the legislature act in such a way that would change or alter this position.

Queens Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz Dies At 45

Michael Simanowitz, a Queens Democrat elected to the Assembly in 2011, died on Saturday.

He was 45.

Before his election to the Assembly, Simanowitz was a top aide to Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn and had served as an auxiliary police officer.

Tributes from elected officials in Queens and across the state poured in immediately, recalling Simanowitz as a caring lawmaker and community representative.

“We shared a love for our home borough of Queens and a belief in public service as a vehicle for positive change,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who noted Simanowitz’s religious faith as a guiding principle.

“As an Assembly member and prior to that a staffer, he was widely respected by his peers and his partners in government.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in a statement said he was shocked by Simanowitz’s death, which came after an illness.

“Words are not adequate to express how heartbroken I am that he is no longer with us, a thought I am sure my colleagues in the Assembly and throughout government share,” Heastie said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Jennifer and their four children.”

Rep. Joe Crowley, the chairman of the Queens Democratic Committee, said he, too, was heartbroken by Simanowitz’s death.

“He was a person beyond reproach and someone who carried out the duties of the office with dignity and honor,” Crowley said. “He fought tirelessly for his community and will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him. I offer my deepest condolences to his family and friends during this difficult time.”

Heastie Goes Back To School

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is going back to school this fall to teach a class on personal finance at the Bronx campus of Monroe College.

He will be paid $5,200, according to a spokesman.

“Higher education has always been a priority to me as I recognize the countless doors it has opened for me, and I want to ensure others have that same opportunity,” Heastie said.

“It is a privilege to advocate for students in the New York State Assembly and a mission I am still fully dedicated to. Interacting with students in the classroom has always been a passion of mine and I look forward to connecting with students on a more personal level this fall.”

Heastie has an MBA in finance and has done accounting work. He previously worked as an adjunct professor from 2007 through the fall of 2014 prior to being elected speaker in 2015.

Heastie Would Want Any Tax Hike To Have Broad Benefit

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in an interview on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Thursday did not embrace a targeted tax increase on the rich that would boost revenue at the MTA.

Instead, Heastie said his conference would want to see any new tax have a broader benefit.

“For those of us in the Assembly we’ve always supported asking those who have a little more to do a little more,” he said. “But we’d like that to be able to do across the board for things that we need — education, health care. We have no idea what the feds are going to us. The roof can collapse on us at any moment if they finally adopt the budget. I don’t think it’s going to be one that’s friendly to the state of New York.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed a tax increase to bolster the MTA amid slowdowns and delays along the New York City subway system. Heastie confirmed in the interview the de Blasio proposal was discussed at a meeting this month of Assembly Democrats from the MTA service area to discuss transit issues.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has reignited a debate over congestion pricing as a means of alleviating traffic and increasing revenue.

Cuomo has said the tax proposal from de Blasio is dead on arrival with Senate Republicans, who have been publicly skeptical of the plan themselves.

“Traditionally the Senate Republicans don’t really want to do income tax increases,” Heastie said in the interview, “and that’s probably why the governor said that and the governor right now wants to pursue the idea of congesting pricing.”

Gaveling In The Legislative Session, Even When No One Is Albany

The halls of the Capitol are empty for the summer, but that doesn’t mean all state lawmakers are gone.

Every three days, the Assembly is gaveled in to session for about 90 seconds, even if the chamber is empty. Nothing aside from the Pledge of Allegiance actually happens. But it’s meant to keep the Assembly continuously in session, so the governor can’t force the Legislature back to Albany.

“It makes it a negotiation as opposed to telling us when we’re supposed to do something. So it’s really just a control issue,” said Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, an Albany Democrat.

The often-lonely job was conducted by longtime Assemblyman Jack McEneny as a way to block recess appointments made by the governor. When he retired, the duty fell to Fahy, with an assist from Assemblyman John McDonald of nearby Cohoes.

“Primarily, it’s Member Fahy’s responsibility, because the Capitol sits within her district,” McDonald said. “My district is across the street at the Education Department and down at the other end. I do it when she can’t do it.”

And it’s not just the off-season that lawmakers have to come in. Often, they are here at the Capitol on weekends, gaveling in to an absent audience to ensure legislation can move through the chamber without interruption.

“Sometimes members want certain legislation addressed on a Monday,” McDonald said, “so that means Saturday, Sunday, we have to gavel in and have a session and advance through the proper steps.”

And it’s not the most pleasant of jobs at times, either, especially in colder months.

“Yes, there at times, and yes, I had a car accident coming down here one Saturday morning during the first snowfall, so sometimes it’s been a little challenging,” Fahy said.

For now, the other 211 members of the Legislature have no plans to come back to Albany before the end of the year, though legislative leaders have cautioned that could change, depending on what Congress does with the federal budget.