Silver: Assembly Dems Not A Roadblock To Reform

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a statement Tuesday afternoon insisted that his chamber is not a roadblock to campaign-finance law changes such as closing the LLC loophole and creating a system of publicly financed campaigns as Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he won’t consider backing a pay raise without passage of those measures.

“As I have often said, I believe members of the Legislature work hard and deserve a pay raise,” Silver said in the statement. “It has been reported that a roadblock to a potential deal for a pay raise has been the Legislature’s unwillingness to pass public campaign finance reform and close the LLC loophole. It should be noted that the Assembly Majority, in fact, supports both measures and has passed a bill to accomplish this several times, including this past session. We stand ready to do so once again.”

Silver’s statement follows public pronouncements from both the mainline Democratic conference and the Republican conference in the state Senate who signaled support for reform measures, ostensibly to extract a pay increase from Cuomo.

State lawmakers currently earn $79,500 as base salary.

Silver’s statement doesn’t make mention of support for curtailing outside income, which Cuomo has also indicated is a stipulation to for considering a pay hike.

Support for a pay increase — the first lawmakers would receive since 1998 — is considered especially strong in the Democratic-led Assembly, where lawmakers, especially those from downstate, have been pushing leadership hard to get Cuomo to back a salary hike measure.

Assembly Churn Could Lead Fight Over Leadership Posts

From the Morning Memo:

An interesting side note to the pay raise debate…

A downstate Assembly member predicted that if lawmakers don’t see their base pay increased, it will intensify the already considerable competition for leadership posts and committee chairmanships in that chamber.

“There will be a bloodbath” for the two top posts currently available – speaker pro tempore and assistant speaker, this lawmaker predicted.

Those titles were held by Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, of Long Island, and Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs, of Brooklyn, respectively, both of whom decided not to seek re-election this fall.

The positions carry big stipends, known as “lulus” in Albany parlance: $25,000 for assistant speaker and $22,000 for speaker pro tempore. That’s a lot, especially when you consider the fact that the average chairmanship carries a lulu of “just” $12,500.

Two committee chairs are vacant at the moment: Aging, which was held by Brooklyn Assemblywoman Joan Millman; and Environment, which was held by Long Island Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, of Long Island.

Both Millman and Sweeney opted not to run for re-election.

There has already been considerable speculation about who might be elevated by Silver, but he – as usual – is playing his cards close to the vest.

If Silver decides to tap a member who already has a committee to fill one of these vacancies – say, Manhattan Assemblywoman Deborah Glick to replace Sweeney, as has been mentioned – then that member’s chairmanship (in Glick’s case, Higher Ed) will open.

This will touch off a process known in the Assembly as “churn,” in which lower ranking members move up the food chain and perhaps land a committee of their own.

This is a hot topic in the Assembly Democratic conference, where, unlike in the Senate, which has far fewer seats, there are not enough lulus to go around.

A decision from Silver will likely come in January – perhaps in the middle of the month. The speaker doesn’t like to be rushed when it comes to issues of member management.

New Wrinkle In Pay Raise Talks (Updated)

From the Morning Memo:

Officially speaking, there are no formal negotiations taking place about a legislative pay raise – the first since 1999 – and what the governror might be interested in trading for that.

But it has been clear for some time that those talks are indeed taking place, and, according to multiple sources, that is occurring at the highest possible level.

(In other words, with direct conversations between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders, and not just among staffers for the three men in the proverbial room).

Officially speaking, no numbers have been floated as far as how big a raise lawmakers might be seeking.

But it has also been clear for some time that those who have been calling the longest and the loudest for an increase in their $79,500 base legislative salaries hail from downstate, where the cost of living is highest.

The starting salary for a New York City Council member is $112,000, which has been mentioned by state legislators as a figure they, too, would very much like to obtain – at the very least.

But a boost of that size – or even to just under $100,000, so as to not break that ugly six-figure mark – would make New York’s Legislature the most highly compensated in the nation.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California lawmakers currently make the most, with a base annual salary of $90,526. Pennsylvania comes in second at $84,012. New York ranks third.

New York is also up there when it comes to per diems, though Alaska, (where the base pay is $50,400) comes in highest at $234 per day.

Imagine this headline: New York lawmakers raise own bottom lines, become highest paid in the nation.

Even with whatever reforms the governor manages to wring out of legislative leaders, that one’s not going to play terribly well.

It especially won’t sit well with the New York Times, which has been hammering Cuomo for failing to make good on (in the Gray Lady’s eyes, anyway) his 2010 pledge to clean up Albany, and for pulling the plug early on his anti-corruption Moreland Commission.

The Times reported earlier this week that Cuomo is trying to drive a hard reform bargain with lawmakers in exchange for their pay raise, and won’t sign off on anything until he’s satisfied those changes are “significant.”

Now, one could argue that the Times is probably never going to be satisfied with the level of reform to which legislative leaders are likely to agree. And it will be Cuomo who will bear the brunt of the paper’s wrath, since lawmakers can’t really sink much lower in the editorial board’s esteem.

As we’ve noted in previous memos, Cuomo could benefit from a legislative pay raise himself, since it’s tied to his own salary, not to mention the salaries of his top commissioners and second floor aides.

It’s no secret the governor has been having a tough time attracting top talent to work for him in Term II, and perhaps a boost in the salaries he’s able to offer would sweeten the deal for potential new employees.

Today might be the make-or-break moment for a legislative pay raise. Cuomo and the leaders are due in town for the regional economic development grant awards, postponed from yesterday due to the weather.

It’s widely expected that the three will get together for a leaders meeting after the noon event at The Egg.

A special session, if it’s called, would likely have to take place next week – most likely Monday.

But one lawmaker told me Tuesday or Wednesday is also a possibility, even though Chanukah starts at sundown Tuesday, complicating matters for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, an observant Jew.

After that, you’re cutting things pretty close with the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season and pre-session vacations.

UPDATE: A Cuomo administration source emailed to correct me on the question of the governor’s own salary, which is not set in a pay bill, but rather by a joint resolution of the two houses of the Legislature, as laid out in the state Constitution.

Advocates Push Cuomo To Move On DREAM Act

Supporters of legislation that would provide tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday to include the measure in his 2014-15 state budget proposal.

In doing so, a coalition of groups in Albany framed the state’s Tuition Assistance Program as one that is in need of updating from its inception in 1974.

“What has happened over the past 25 to 30 years has been an historic disinvestment that has taken place,” said Steve London, the first VP of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents City University of New York faculty and staff. “Many from the state and localities has been withdrawn from the state system — both SUNY and CUNY.”

London added “we no longer live in a Ozzie and Harriet world.”

“There are a lot of students who no longer fit in the mold of the students who were around in 1974. So TAP needs to be reformed,” he said.

Extending TAP to undocumented immigrants and their children remains opposed by Senate Republicans, who voted against the legislation in a vote last year (holding the vote itself was criticized by some DREAM Act supporters, given they were lobbying potential Republican “yes” votes who either voted against the bill or were not present).

Today’s news conference on the DREAM Act legislation came as the Assembly Higher Education Committee held a public hearing on the state’s tuition program ahead of the 2015 legislative session. The Democratic-led Assembly has passed the DREAM Act in previous legislative sessions.

Opponents of the measure say that expanding college tuition aid should go toward question the cost, estimated to be about $20 million.

“In a $140 billion state budget, we don’t think anybody should be discriminated against when it comes to financial aid,” said NYPIRG Legislative Director Blair Horner.

Cuomo himself has said in recent months he backs the DREAM Act, first in an off-hand fashion at a news conference, later more forcefully when he received the endorsement of the Working Families Party.

Cuomo included support for the measure in his 2014 re-election policy book as well.

“The Governor strongly believes that the state should continue this tradition by supporting the New York State DREAM Act, which will support the advancement of undocumented immigrants by enabling them to apply for state college tuition assistance,” the book said.

Abinanti Drafts AG-Only Police Misconduct Investigation Bill

Assemblyman Tom Abinanti is taking state AG Eric Schneiderman’s call for temporary power to investigate unarmed civilian deaths at the hands of police officers one step further.

The Westchester County Democrat said he’s drafting legislation that would give the AG’s office exclusive jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute all alleged crimes by police officers whether or not in connection with the performance of their regular duties.

“There is an appearance of a conflict of interest – if not an inherent actual conflict of interest – every time a local district attorney is called on to handle a matter against a local police officer with whom the DA must work in the normal course of their duties,” Abinanti said in a press release. “The present law giving the governor discretion to take matters from a local DA and give it to the attorney general is not enough.”

Abinanti’s announcement comes one day after Schneiderman sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo seeking an executive order that would give the automtically make the AG a special prosecutor in instances like the death of Eric Garner following a chokehold administered by an NYPD officer until such time that the governor and legislative leaders agree on permanent statutory reforms.

Assemblyman Keith Wright, a Harlem Democrat and former co-chair of the state Democratic Party, been pushing the Legislature to afford the AG jurisdiction over cases of police misconduct since 1999. The measure has been passed multiple times by the Assembly, but has never been taken up by the Senate.

Wright’s bill is sponsored in the Senate by Bronx Democratic Sen. Gustavo Rivera.

In his letter to the governor, Schneiderman references a similar measure, applicable only to offenses allegedly committed by New York City police officers, that was recently introduced by Brooklyn Sen. Kevin Parker. And there’s also another bill, sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Nick Perry, also of Brooklyn, which would allow a judge to appoint another DA or AG to act as a “special district attorney” in criminal matters where the judge finds that the county prosecutor is “disqualified.”

Cuomo’s press office said yesterday that Schneiderman’s request is under review.

Silver Signals Willingness To Back Criminal Justice Reforms

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a statement on Thursday indicated he is willing to work with state and city leaders on a package of criminal justice reforms that Gov. Andrew Cuomo first raised in the morning.

Silver, in his first statement on the grand jury not indicting police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Garner over the summer, said the following demonstrations “speak undeniably to the frustration that so many feel.”

“It is essential that citizens have faith in our government to enforce the laws uniformly and without bias,” Silver said. “This is a bedrock principle of our country and that is why I support a full re-examination of the Eric Garner case and am committed to working with Governor Cuomo, my colleagues in the Legislature, Mayor de Blasio and with law enforcement to improve the manner in which we police our streets and to restore the people’s faith in our legal system.”

Cuomo in a radio interview on The Capitol Pressroom said he would support changes to the grand jury process, including transparency provisions as well as body cameras for police and strengthen training programs.

What’s Next for Women’s Equality?

From the Morning Memo:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 10-point Women’s Equality Act figured significantly in his successful campaign strategy for winning a second four-year term, and even served as the impetus for creation of a new political party.

Just as the future of the Women’s Equality Party remains uncertain, so does the fate of the governor’s 10-point plan, which remains DOA with the Senate Republicans – who now control the upper house – as long as it contains a controversial abortion rights plank.

Cuomo pledged in his election night speech that he would work in 2015 for passage of the Women’s Equality Act, “because discrimination and inequality against women stops in New York State.”

He did not elaborate – nor has he since – on how he planned to do that.

It’s even unclear at this point whether the Democrat-controlled state Assembly, which consistently stood firm on an all-or-nothing approach to the WEA as the Senate passed nine of its 10 planks, will continue to maintain that stance.

Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo said during a CapTon interview last night that the chamber’s women’s caucus, which is growing by nine members in 2015, has not yet had a chance to establish a position on the WEA for the coming legislative session.

Lupardo, a Southern Tier Democrat, said she was one of just a handful of female lawmakers who argued in favor of breaking up the WEA to pass individual bills.

“It was a package that was artificially put together, and on the domestic violence and on the trafficking issue in particular we should have taken those up,” the assemblywoman said.

It was the caucus, in fact, who recommended to the speaker that it not be broken up. I was unsuccessful in persuading my colleagues, but we go along with the group and that was their decision. I was in the minority.”

Lupardo said she believes the incoming assemblywoman “bring a certain earnest urgency toward getting this accomplished,” adding: “We do talk to each other, and I think that we have a very powerful voice when we get organized.”

The women’s caucus was particularly empowered in the fact of the sexual harassment scandal involving former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the handling of which brought widespread criticism of Speaker Sheldon Silver.

That case continues to play out in the courts.

Breaking up the WEA with the understanding that a deal cannot be reached on the abortion plank in the short term would give the governor and legislative leaders an early win in 2015, though it might anger some in the abortion-rights/women’s rights movement.

However, even the advocates weren’t universally in favor of the all-or-nothing approach, just like they weren’t 100 percent on board with Cuomo’s creation of a women-specific political party.

Early Bird Lawmakers

From the Morning Memo:

If the Legislature does return to Albany for a special session, some newly-elected lawmakers may have a chance to get a jump on their fellow freshmen when it comes to voting.

Those lawmakers elected to fill seats that were vacant before the Nov. 4 elections can be certified as full fledged members of their respective houses prior to the start of the 2015 session in January.

The eight Assembly members – six Democrats and two Republicans – who fit into this category will be certified on Dec. 15, according to Assembly spokesman Mike Whyland, which means they will take the oath of office and can be seated that every day.

If a special session is called before Dec. 15, then a resolution could be passed to make those members eligible to vote.

This is important because every vote will count when it comes to a pay raise.

Downstate lawmakers likely have more cover than their upstate counterparts, since $79,500 is on the low side when it comes to average professional salaries in NYC and on Long Island.

In the Senate, there were two empty seats prior to the elections – one was vacated by Democrat Eric Adams, who left to become Brooklyn borough president; the other belonged to Long Island Republican Chuck Fuschillo, who resigned to take a private sector job.

Democrat Jesse Hamilton won Adams’ seat. There’s still some question about whether Hamilton will join the IDC when he arrives in Albany.

Republican Michael Venditto won Fuschillo’s seat. That race was pretty much a walk for the GOP after the Democratic candidate, Dave Denenberg, dropped out of the race (though his name remained on the ballot) after he was sued by members of his former law firm for allegedly bilking clients out of $2 million worth of services.

Technically speaking, outgoing lawmakers who did not seek re-election for whatever reason could resign tomorrow and whoever was elected to replace them could be sworn in and eligible to vote in a special session.

But that’s highly unlikely, because those lame duck votes come in handy when it’s time to vote on a pay raise. Lawmakers who aren’t returning to Albany don’t have worry about incurring the wrath of their constituents by voting “yes” on a big salary bump for their soon-to-be-former colleagues.

Second Round Of Kellner Harassment Charges Dismissed (Updated)

A second set of sexual harassment charges that had been leveled against Assemblyman Micah Kellner were dismissed by a hearing officer, with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver being asked to review sanctions that stripped the Manhattan Democrat of his Albany and district offices.

Kellner was accused last year of making inappropriate advances directed toward legislative staff, and a second round of charges were leveled at him when he was accused of employing an intern, a violation of the December penalties Silver had issued.

Hearing officer Howard Levine wrote in a letter that Kellner wasn’t given enough notice earlier this spring following the new charge.

Levine did said that while Kellner’s employment of an intern did violate the December order, it wasn’t determinative that Kellner’s offices should be taken away from him.

“No evidence has been offered indicating what the Speaker would have done in the absence of additional sexual harassment findings,” Levine wrote. “Moreover, whether or not it would shock my sense of fairness if the Speaker had determined to close Member Kellner’s offices absent the sexual harassment findings, that is simply not the record before me.”

Kellner in an emailed statement to reporters blasted Silver, saying the ruling by Levine proved the Assembly Ethics Committee’s review of the harassment case shwed it was “nothing more then a kangaroo court doing Speaker Silver’s bidding.”

“Speaker Silver put my appeal in the hands of a lobbying firm, assuming they would also do his bidding because it was in their financial interest, but when they showed a shred of fairness Speaker Silver, making this up as he goes along, decided to ignore his hand picked appeals officer and ham handily invoke double jeopardy,” he said.

In October, Levine denied an appeal by Kellner on the initial set of harassment charges.

Kellner has argued in his appeal that he didn’t receive the constitutional right to due process or enough time to respond to the harassment charges.

But Levine wrote in the report that Kellner had “sufficient opportunity to refute and clear his name with respect to allegations of misconduct.”

Updated: Silver spokesman Mike Whyland responded, saying Kellner has “no credibility.”

“Assemblyman Kellner has no credibility. The Ethics and Guidance Committee found on more than one occasion that he acted in an inappropriate and sexually abusive manner toward his staff. He cannot hide the fact that in direct violation of the Speaker’s directive, and confirmed by Judge Levine, he continued to employ an intern and instructed his staff to cover it up. Additionally new sexual harassment allegations were uncovered following the first round of sanctions. Given all this, at the request of the Ethics and Guidance Committee, we took the necessary steps to stop his terrible behavior and prevent him from further harassing Assembly employees.”

And here’s the letter from Levine:

Lavine Nov 13 Letter by Nick Reisman

AG Backs Legislative Pay Raises

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has endorsed a pay raise for his former colleagues in the state Legislature, provided that they also approve reforms to the per diem system that has proved too easy for corrupt lawmakers to scam.

“I think the Legislature, after 15 years, hasn’t had a pay raise, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do,” Schneiderman said during a Capital Tonight interview last night. “But I think it should be accompanied by reforms to the system.”

“If you think about the per diem system, this is in addition to travel expenses, this is not just travel expenses,” the AG continued. “This is something else that you get every day…There’s incentives to stay away from your district where your constituents are and stay in Albany.”

“It’s sort of a weird system. It struck me as strange when I first got up there, and it strikes me as a little bit strange today. So, I would like to see reforms of the system.”

Schneiderman, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was a state senator prior to his election to the AG’s office in 2010. He succeeded Andrew Cuomo, who ascended to the governor’s office that year.

Schneiderman was elected to the Senate in 1998, defeating Danny O’Donnell (then a civil rights attorney, now a state assemblyman) in a Democratic primary.

That was the same year legislators did a deal with then-GOP Gov. George Pataki that raised their base pay by 38 percent to its current level ($79,500) in exchange for agreeing to forgo their paychecks in the event of late budgets and the creation of charter schools in New York.

The pay raise took effect in January of 1999, since, technically speaking, sitting lawmakers cannot vote to increase their own pay.

They can, however, give raises to members of the incoming Legislature, which, thanks to Albany’s high re-election rate for incumbents, looks a lot like the Legislature that preceded it.

This year, both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos have expressed a willingness to consider per diem system reforms along with legislative pay raises.

There’s talk lawmakers could return to Albany for a special session in December, though there have been no formal negotiations to speak of, and Cuomo hasn’t yet made clear what – if anything – he’s willing to trade legislative leaders in exchange for signing off on a pay raise.

Abuse of the per diem system has landed a number of state lawmakers in hot water over the years, the most recent of which is Assemblyman William Scarborough, a Queens Democrat who was arrested in October on charges he sought reimbursement for nonexistent travel expenses.

Schneiderman said last night that “it should be clear at this point that my office and other prosecutors are never going to turn a blind eye to these abuses any more.”

“I think you’re seeing more aggressive pursuit by the attorney generals office and other prosecutors of issues related to public corruption than you’ve ever seen before,” the AG said. “And that’s not going to stop until the culture changes.”