Assembly To Review Transparency Rules

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Friday announced the formation of a 12-member committee to review thee chamber’s rules and operations in order to promote both transparency and broader public participation.

Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, had pledged to strengthen the Assembly’s open government regulations after he was elected speaker in February, replacing Sheldon Silver, who is under indictment.

The working group will be led by Assemblyman Gary Pretlow and Assembly Brian Kavanagh, Heastie’s office said.

More broadly, Heastie had promised to democratize the chamber and give individual lawmakers are great voice in the operations of the chamber.

“Since becoming Speaker, I have made a special effort to create issue specific workgroups and a new subcommittee structure that promotes member participation while exploring new ideas to move New York forward,” said Heastie in a statement. “Members have a lot of great ideas, and the creation of this new workgroup is an opportunity for us to build on the strong processes already in place that promote transparency and accountability.”

Assembly Republicans have pushed Heastie and the Democratic conference for reforms that would impact the minority as well, including a great allocation of office resources and making it easier for their sponsored bills to come to the floor, which so far have not been taken up.

What Do Assembly Democrats Want?

The question really ought to be, “What don’t Assembly Democrats want?”

Rank-and-file Assembly Democrats last week insisted they had negotiated out some of the more controversial and, for them, problematic education policy changes that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had sought.

But the Democratic conference in the Assembly remains miffed over a number of slights from the state budget process: The DREAM Act fell off the table during the talks with little fanfare, a minimum wage hike never came to fruition and changes to the state’s grand jury process when it comes to police-related deaths never really came out of an embryonic stage.

Assembly Democrats now face a statewide teachers union that is angered by the education reform measures and will be pushing hard for legislation that makes it easier for students to opt-out of state tests, thus diluting the impact the tests have on the revamped performance evaluations.

On top of that, juvenile justice policy changes — including an effort to raise the age of criminal responsibility — will be a top issue for the conference to has out as well.

Democrats, too, must work with Senate Republicans on an extension of rent control laws for New York City and help one of their top elected allies — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — gain an extension of mayoral control for city schools.

To be sure, Assembly Democrats have not alienated the New York State United Teachers union to the same degree Cuomo has, or to the point where NYSUT is considering primaries against some members. The United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City teachers, also remain steadfast allies with the Assembly Democrats, especially newly elected Speaker Carl Heastie.

But coinciding with that will likely be a renewed effort to boost the number of charter schools statewide. Cuomo had initially sought lifting the cap by 100 in the state budget, a proposal that could now be tied to mayoral control.

The cap issue is not one charter schools are believed to be pushing especially hard for compared to, say, a boost in per pupil tuition aid, but it remains a point of leverage for Senate Republicans in taking on the mayoral control issue.

The 100-plus member conference faced one of its biggest crises in a generation after the ouster of longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver in the past three months following his arrest on corruption charges.

His toppling could have created a severe power vacuum and a delay in a budget agreement — but the wheels of state government were able to grind on.

Despite the grumbling over education, Heastie remains well-liked by the Democratic conference that just elected to become one of the three most powerful men in the state.

He has 100 different voices to wrangle in a post-budget session and the personal experience now of negotiating directly with Cuomo. June will be a busy month in Albany, but doubly so for Assembly Democrats.

From earlier: What do Senate Republicans want?

Heastie To Offer Democratic ‘Rebuttal’ At LCA Show

Newly elected Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie will deliver the Democratic “rebuttal” at the annual Legislative Correspondents Association political gridiron show.

Heastie, who was elected speaker earlier this year following the arrest of Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver, will be the first Assembly speaker in more than two decades to appear in the program, known as The LCA Show.

The annual event lampoons state government and politics and is the oldest political gridiron show in the country.

The Bronx Democrat is not exactly known for his love of reporters and the press in general, but the event could be an ice-breaking one for the new speaker.

The event is scheduled for Tuesday, June 9 at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center. A free dress rehearsal is scheduled for Monday night.

A Republican presenter for the program. is expected to be announced shortly.

Johns Calls Pay Commission ‘Backdoor’ Way Of Getting A Raise

A Rochester-area State Assemblyman says if his colleagues want a pay raise they should draft legislation and vote on it.  Webster Republican Mark Johns not only criticized the way the pay raise commission was approved he called the bill flawed.

“We passed the bill at 2:30-3:00 in the morning and there’s not a lot of daylight then and people aren’t necessarily paying attention.  The problem I have with a pay commission is the people on the commission will be appointed by politicians to decide how big of a raise the politicians should get,” said Johns.

About a week ago the idea of a pay raise commission for state-elected officials looked like a dead issue.  The commission was included in a last minute budget bill approved by the Senate and the Assembly.

“I believe the constitution says that we have to vote ourselves a raise, which will not take effect until the next legislature is seated, and I believe that’s the correct way to do it.  I think if people want a raise they make their argument, like they would with any other bill, and then have an up or down vote on it so you can see how your legislators are going to vote on the increase,” Johns said.

As Nick previously detailed, the new panel is actually being rolled into the commission created in 2011 that determines whether state judges should receive a boost in pay.  As Johns noted, any pay raise for the Senate and Assembly would not take effect until the next Legislature is seated, or Jan 1, 2017.

“I got elected in 2010 and I took a pledge not to vote for a pay increase for the duration that I’ll be down there.  I think that people would like to see a lot of things voted on and a pay increase is not one of them.  We don’t vote on term limits which upwards of ninety percent of the people want.  We’re going to do a backdoor way of getting a pay increase and I don’t think that’s going to be real popular when it gets out,” said Johns.

Increasingly frustrated with the legislative process, Johns teamed up with Democratic Sen. Diane Savino last year to introduce the SOLE act.  The Sensible Opportunity for Legislative Equality bill would allow each member to bring a bill that’s been discharged from committee to the floor for a vote at least once during a two-year legislative session.

A version of the bill was included in an Assembly Minority ethics reform package and did not make it into the budget. Johns is hopeful the idea will still be considered before the end of the legislative session.

“I’ll be honest with you we talk about all kinds of equality: marriage equality, pat equality, gender equality, I think legislative equality would go a long way.  We vote on a lot of issues down there and the red button does work.  There’s no reason a minority member or a majority member shouldn’t be allowed to bring up a good idea for discussion and have an up or down vote and if you don’t like the bill or the contents vote it down,” Johns added.


Heastie: Pension Amendment Will Be Voted On

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in a statement on Thursday said his chamber will approve first passage of a constitutional amendment that would strip public officials of their pensions upon felony conviction.

The Assembly did approve pension forfeiture language this week, which was contained in a budget bill as part of a larger package of ethics reform.

The amendment itself, which doesn’t have any implications for the budget, wasn’t passed as lawmakers worked into the early hours of Wednesday morning to wrap up the state budget. The amendment still needs second passage from another separately elected session of the Legislature and approval from voters.

Lawmakers return to Albany on April 21.

Heastie was elected to the speaker’s post earlier this year after Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver stepped down following his arrest on corruption charges. Silver was indicated in February on charges the he masked bribes and pay offs as legal referrals.

Heastie’s statement:

From the start, I vowed to enact comprehensive ethics reform this legislative session and crack down on those who abuse the public’s trust. I am proud of the steps we have taken as part of the State Budget to increase disclosure of outside income, improve transparency and accountability, and strengthen the ban on campaign funds for personal use. We must continue to be vigilant to ensure that New Yorkers have the utmost confidence that state government is working for the people. Within the budget bill the Assembly passed this week was a strong pension forfeiture measure that provides for pension forfeiture for state officers, including legislators, who are convicted of public corruption. For this to apply to officials who entered the retirement system before enactment of the pension forfeiture law in 2011, we need to adopt a resolution amending the State Constitution. The Assembly will adopt an implementing resolution to accomplish this when we return to Session.

Assembly Dems to SED: We’re Watching

From the Morning Memo:

After much public angst, and over NYSUT’s objections, the Assembly passed the education budget bill Tuesday night that included a number of reforms pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that will change the way teachers are hired and fired, evaluated and achieve tenure.

The final vote was 92-54, with a number of Assembly Democrats joining their Republican colleagues in voting “no”, despite the fact that to do so meant rejecting an additional $1.4 billion (or $1.6 billion, according to Speaker Carl Heastie’s math) in funding for school districts.

Among the “no” voters was freshman Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, who won a seat in last year’s elections that was formerly held by a Republican, (Tony Jordan, who retired to become Washington County DA), and is one of the majority conference’s more marginal members.

During a CapTon interview last night, Woerner said her vote was influenced not by the union, which not only backed her successful Assembly run in 2014, but also her unsuccessful run in 2012, but rather by the parents and teachers who flooded her email inbox, Twitter feed, office phones and Facebook page with comments.

“They’ve all communicated to me their deep concerns about the approach that these reforms are taking, and the pace at which they’re being pushed through, and sort of the lack of thoughtful approach to education policy,” the assemblywoman said. “They really influenced me. That’s really what i was listening to.”

Woerner said she and her fellow Assembly Democrats are taking some small comfort in the fact that much responsibility for setting performance evaluation parameters now lies with the state Education Department, which is not under the Cuomo administration’s control.

In fact, the Assembly Democrats control the selection of the 17-member Board Regents members, who, in turn, run SED, though the department is currently without a commissioner, thanks to the departure at the beginning of this year of John King, who took a job with the Obama administration.

Woerner said she and other Assembly Democrats “anticipated where all this was going” in terms of the governor’s focus on education reform, and pushed hard “to put more people on the board who have experience in K-through-12.”

The result was an unusually contentious election process last month that saw four new members elected to the board – including Beverly Ouderkirk, a former Watertown-area superintendent, whose North Country to Albany region covers Woerner’s 113th Assembly District.

“I’m really looking forward to working with (Ouderkirk) to try to influence this process,” Woerner said.

“There’s a lot more interest in attending Regents meetings and in being a visible presence at those meetings, so that it’s clear that we’re engaged and we’re paying attention and we’re going to try to have some influence on how things go,” the assemblywoman continued.

“So, while that’s not necessarily concrete policy stuff, the level of engagement will be increased.”

It’s fascinating that everyone is now vesting all this trust in SED, when not terribly long ago they were excoriating the department for botching the rollout of the Common Core curriculum.

For what it’s worth, the Cuomo administration is downplaying SED’s policy-setting role when it comes to the APPR, saying the changes passed by the Legislature are very “prescriptive” (as state Operations Director Jim Malatras said on CapTon last night) and don’t allow for much wiggle room.

At this point, most – including Woerner – have adopted a wait-and-see attitude until the SED releases its plans in June.

But the Assembly Democrats clearly haven’t given up hope that they’ll be able to exert some influence on the process, and the teachers unions have made it clear they haven’t given up the fight on their end, either.

April 1 Or Not, Assembly Dates Bills For March 31

Time is all relative, anyway.

Both the capital projects spending bill as well as a massive “clean up” bill that includes a two-year extension of the design-build method of contracting were recorded as having passed the Assembly on March 31, despite being voted on and approved after midnight.

Technically speaking, the Democratic-led Assembly approved the final budget bills on April 1, making for an hours-late state budget.

In practical terms, having the final budget bills means little to the actual funding and functioning of state government: The major appropriations for state government were previously approved and place.

And while Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s streak of four on-time budgets seemed to near an end, the Assembly is dating those remaining bills as having passed on March 31, as opposed to April 1.

In previous years, state lawmakers sought to avoid having a late budget by actually stopping the clock in the chambers in order to approve the measures before the state of the new fiscal year.

At the same time, state legislative leaders never formally ended their Tuesday session, meaning the date stayed the same on the electronic voting board.

“Until we gavel out,” Speaker Carl Heastie told Newsday, “it’s still Tuesday.”

Will Clocks Stop Tonight?

State lawmakers are digging in at the state Capitol for the final passage of the 2015-16 state budget, with just hours to go before the dawn of the new fiscal year.

In addition to massive budget bills that total hundreds of pages and contain changes to education policy in the state, lawmakers are also due to consider a constitutional amendment for having officials convicted of corruption lose their pensions.

In short, the budget may not meet its midnight deadline, making for the first late spending plan since 2010.

The Republican-led Senate is in session at this point, but the Democratic-controlled Assembly is where Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reforms are the most contentious.

The budget includes a new teacher evaluation system, makes it harder for teachers to obtain tenure and reforms the process for removing teachers from the classroom, essentially making it easier to fire poor-performing teachers, regardless of tenure.

The reforms are staunchly opposed by the state’s teachers union, which is urging legislators to vote against them.

“I think judging from some of the phone calls and emails we’re getting in our offices right now, I think there’s a lot of anger and frustration about the process and what’s in the bill,” said Utica Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, a Democrat.

“We’re digesting and we’re going to make a decision what we’re going to do,” he added.

It’s expected to be a long night. As of 5 p.m., the Assembly was yet to enter its session.

“We’re just going through it, going through bill copy,” Majority Leader Joe Morelle said. “There’s a lot of mechanics on the last day.”

Enacting the new evaluation criteria by November will be tied to a boost in education aid for school districts, and lawmakers are raising concerns with the effort re-negotiate contracts.

“I think it certainly scales back some of the collective bargaining rights teachers have negotiated, Brindisi said. “These are due process rights teachers have negotiated over a number of years.”

Lawmakers also have little time to consider the measures, contained in a 311-page education, labor and family assistance package that also has ethics and disclosure reforms tied to it.

“I would say many of my colleagues are very unsettled,” Assemblywoman Pat Fahy of Albany said. “It’s a lot to try to read today.”

Adding to the headaches for Democratic lawmakers in the Assembly, the education details were negotiated up until Monday, despite a framework agreed to on Sunday.

Those adjustments came after the United Federation of Teachers touted their efforts to have the evaluation legislation changed as initially proposed by Cuomo.

“There’s been a lot to absorb and just today,” Fahy said. “We thought were in one place on Sunday and then we backpedaled a little bit given the fallout evidently over some of the comments in the press about victories and what have you. So there was a long night yesterday trying to put things back together.”

Heastie: Despite Concerns, Assembly Dems Will Pass Education Reforms

Assembly Speaker Carl Heasite this afternoon acknowledged the education reform measure in the 2015-16 state budget are difficult for his members to accept, but the legislation will pass his chamber at some point in the next few hours.

“It’s not an ideal world, it’s not an ideal situation, but the people of this state want an on-time budget,” Heastie told reporters.

The bill, being printed now, will be voted on as soon as its ready, Heastie said.

The vote comes despite a last-minute push from labor-backed groups like the Working Families Party and the Alliance for Quality Education to not consider the bill today and insert potential changes.

Heastie had still been negotiating the education policy in the budget that Gov. Andrew Cuomo pursued this year, which includes a new teacher evaluation criteria and tenure requirements as well as a reform to the so-called 3020A process that makes it easier for low-performing teachers to be fired, regardless of tenure.

The state’s teachers’ union remains staunchly opposed to the evaluation, tenure and 3020A changes, and rank-and-file Democrats, too, have been critical of the reform polices.

Both the New York State United Teachers union and their city affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers, have urged lawmakers to oppose the legislation.

But voting against the legislation will likely be difficult for Assembly Democrats: The package includes ethics reform legislation the conference previously signed on to earlier this month, which include new disclosure requirements for legal clients of state lawmakers, travel per diem reforms and campaign finance measures.

“We will pass the bill. Members raised a lot of I’d say issues of concern about implementation,” Heastie said. “You make these kinds of changes, members have questions.”

Teachers unions had called the changes a threat to collective bargaining, and local contracts will have to change in order to reflect the law’s changes. But they measures won’t be subject to negotiation on the local level themselves.

“I wouldn’t say it was undermining the bargaining units,” Heastie said.

Implementing the teacher evaluations is tied to a boost in school aid for districts, with a November deadline to do so. The Department of Education will be tasked with setting the weighted percentages for state tests and classroom observation.

Though a framework for the state budget was announced on Sunday by state lawmakers, the education reform measures were still being sorted out as late as Monday.

“There were a lot of open issues up until yesterday,” Heastie said, “and this was one of them.”

LGBT Lawmakers Asks Cuomo for Indiana Travel Ban

The Legislature’s five openly LGBT lawmakers (four Assembly members and one senator) have written to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, asking him to issue an executive order “immediately” barring any state-funded travel to Indiana in opposition to the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law last week by Gov. Mike Pence.

The RFRA prohibits state laws that “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of “person” includes religious institutions, businesses and associations, which opponents say is effectively opening the door to state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT individuals.

In their letter to Cuomo, Democratic Assembly members Deborah Glick (Manhattan), Matt Titone (Staten Island), Danny O’Donnell (Manhattan) and Harry Bronson (Rochester) and Sen. Brad Hoylman (Manhattan) wrote:

“These provisions make clear that Indiana businesses are permitted by law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression in matters including housing, employment, and access to public accommodations.”

“Employees of the State of New York should not be placed in a situation where they are required to travel to a state where they face legalized discrimination. Likewise, New York State taxpayers should not be footing the bill for such travel. We urge you to bar state-funded travel to Indiana, thereby sending a strong message that New York will not stand for legalized discrimination and injustice against LGBT people.”

I’m not sure how much – if any – state-funded travel to Indiana is actually occurring these days. But an executive order would really be a symbolic gesture – one already undertaken by Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee.

It has been noted that Malloy’s order could impact Connecticut’s collegiate sports teams, and if this situation continues into next year, that could interfere with UCONN’s ability to participate in the NCAA Final Four women’s basketball tournament, which is scheduled to be held in Indianapolis. Malloy said he hopes the NCAA moves the tournament.

Pence has defended the RFRA, writing in a Wall Street Journal OpEd today that it has been “grossly misconstrued as a ‘license to discriminate.'” He insists that the act actually reflects federal law, as well as laws in 30 states across the nation.

I actually tweeted early this morning that I was surprised no one in New York had mentioned anything about this Indiana issue yet – especially given the state’s LGBT history, and Cuomo’s success at getting a same-sex marriage bill through the divided Legislature and signing it into law during his first term. Of course, lawmakers have been pretty busy with the budget deadline looming, so they were understandably distracted.