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.

Heastie: Minimum Wage Hike Still Under Discussion

While Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos earlier on Thursday said a minimum wage increase isn’t in the cards for the state budget, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters it remains on the table in the negotiations.

“That’s not my understanding,” Heastie said after emerging from a closed-door conference with Democratic members. “We continue to press people in this state need the minimum wage. We continue that debate.”

Assembly Democrats this afternoon huddled to discuss Cuomo’s education reform proposals, which he is linking to approving a boost of education aid in the state.

Lawmakers on Thursday confirmed the education commission initially floated that would develop criteria has been abandoned, and lawmakers are now discussing having the Board of Regents be charged with developing evaluation criteria.

“We are still discussing education, all the different ways to go,” Heastie said. “At this point, there’s no agreement in anything.”

Likewise, Cuomo is yet to reach an agreement with Senate Republicans on disclosure of legal clients in the state budget, which is due Tuesday.

Heastie said the ethics debate remains “an open subject.”

“I had a conversation about it today with the governor and he’s trying to talk to the Senate,” Heastie said.

Cuomo himself released a lengthy statement reiterating that he won’t back a budget deal without ethics or approve a significant increase in education aid without reform measures for schools included.

The governor also defended his decision to tie so much policy to spending in the budget as well.

“As much as the governor are working toward an agreement, that’s a place where we disagree,” Heastie said. “We don’t believe a lot of policy should be tied up in appropriations.

Despite the posturing, all sides appeared close to reaching an agreement within the next 24 to 48 hours.

Lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly are due to return Friday to have more conversations on the budget. The Assembly is also due to be in Albany for a rare Saturday meeting on the spending plan as well.

An agreement could come as late as Saturday night in order to have measures age without a message of necessity from Cuomo and be voted on Monday and Tuesday.

Assembly Approves Stand-Alone Abortion Measure

The Demoratic-led Assembly this afternoon approved a stand-alone bill that would codify the Roe v. Wade decision in state law.

Passage of the bill comes after the measure was included in the larger, 10-point Women’s Equality Act, a package of measures aimed at pay equity, along with measures aimed at curtailing housing and workplace discrimination.

The bill passed 94-49.

“For the third session in a row, the Assembly has made a clear and bold statement that a woman’s ability to make decisions about her reproductive health – including the right to decide whether and when to have children and to protect her health during pregnancy – is essential to her equality and her and her family’s future,” said Andrea Miller of NARAL Pro-Choice New York.

The Assembly initially refused to take up individual pieces of the legislation as Senate Republicans approved the legislation piecemeal fashion, save for the abortion provision.

But lawmakers last week decided to hold their first vote on a stand-alone plank in the agenda that had already been approved in the Republican-led Senate: A bill that would strengthen penalties for human trafficking.

The move paved the way for other votes on aspects in the WEA package, though Assembly lawmakers have suggested they will approve different versions than what is contained in the omnibus bill.

“There was no valid reason for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Assembly allies to connect important, pro-woman measures with late-term abortion expansion; doing so has unnecessarily delayed the passage of bills that–unlike abortion expansion–would make New York State a better place,” said Jason McGuire of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a social conservative group.

Republicans have pushed back efforts to hold a vote on the abortion provision, calling it an expansion of the current law — a claim supporters say isn’t the case.

“This measure was part of Governor Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act which the State Senate refused to pass in its entirety largely because of their objections to women making their own health care decisions. The Assembly has always supported NY women in their efforts to control their own reproductive health decisions,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick.

Opponents of abortion blasted the vote in the Assembly.

“Expanding cruel and brutal third-trimester abortions has long been a goal of the anti-life lobby who never met an abortion they didn’t like,” said Lori Kehoe, New York State Right to Life executive director. “With no regard for the fully developed unborn baby who is violently dismembered, or otherwise killed, the New York State Assembly once again put the abortion lobby above New York State women and their children.”

The bill at this point appears to stand little chance of becoming law, though it did take center stage during Cuomo’s re-election campaign with the formation of a Women’s Equality Party ballot line to promote the WEA.

Heastie: Assembly Remains Opposed To Funding Linkage

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Wednesday reiterated the Democratic conference remains opposed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to link teacher evaluation criteria to a funding boost for education in the state budget.

“The major issue that the conference has is the linkage of funding to the ratification of the decision,” Heastie said. “We don’t believe that the policy should be linked to appropriations. That’s what I’ve been saying to you for months.”

Lawmakers and Cuomo are discussing the formation of an education commission which would determine potential reform policies.

While that’s seemingly a retreat for the governor who promised to ram through broad education reforms, Cuomo is sticking to his earlier effort that links aid to enacting the policies.

The funding linkage remains a sore point for lawmakers, who have sought to uncouple Cuomo’s appropriations from the policies.

“We’re open to having a conversation on teacher evaluations, but we would like to see that money, the needed money, gets to those districts,” Heastie said.

The exact composition of the commission still remains up in the air and no deal has been finalized at this point.

It’s also unclear what policies the panel would ultimately be charged with developing.

“We haven’t decided anything at this point and I spoke to Senator Skelos yesterday,” Heastie said. “We’ll continue to see where the Senate is and we’ll be speaking to the governor later today.”

The Legislature wants to increase education aid by $1.4 billion; Cuomo’s budget adds $1.1 billion with the policies implemented.

Education Matters

The conversation on education reform in the state Budget appears to have shifted. Sources say last night Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a long talk about some of the governor’s policy proposals and now, finally, there seems to be some movement.

Assembly Democrats conferenced the proposed changes this afternoon, which include taking charter schools out of the discussion. Cuomo had wanted to raise the cap to allow more charters, but as of now that will be taken up at another time – likely later in the session.

The governor also appears to be backing away from his insistence that “failing” schools be placed into a receivership. Democrats staunchly oppose this. Weakening teacher tenure is also on the chopping block – (Cuomo had wanted to make it harder for teachers to gain tenure) – and a formula for teacher evaluations is still being worked out.

Democrats described the overall mood on budget talks as “very different” from the start of this session. No longer is Cuomo taking a “storm-the-beach” approach on his controversial education reforms. Many of those ideas have now been “uncoupled” from the revenue appropriations they were attached to. That paves the way for compromise – not to mention an on-time budget = at least within the the world of Democrats who had loathed the governor’s approach, accusing him of being a bully.

But of course, Republicans still need to come around on ethics if the budget is actually going to be on time.

So, what changed? Well, a couple of things. For one, sources say Cuomo was losing the war against teachers.

First there was the poll last week showing his approval rating at the lowest it has ever been. Then there was the Siena poll that showed the public isn’t really with him on this one. Finally, there are the teachers unions, NYSUT and UFT, whose members successfully painted Cuomo as the enemy of overworked and underpaid teachers.

From the campaign to demonstrate he has spent no time in schools since taking office, to the billboards on the Thruway telling him that he needs to listen to to teachers, it all adds up to a losing battle for the governor.

Not for nothing, but if you are going to take on an entrenched group like the teachers union in this state, you gotta be ready to really go to war. That includes a TV ad blitz, which was noticeably absent in this particular fight.

Cuomo’s buddy across the Hudson, Gov. Chris Christie, successfully turned the public against the NJEA in New Jersey, but he did so after first coming into office in 2010 when his political clout was at its highest. It was also during the great recession when antipathy toward public unions living large on the public dime was at an all-time high.

Then there is the ethics reform piece. Last week, Cuomo successfully pulled Speaker Heastie into the fold on ethics when the Democratic duo announced a two-way agreement that left Senate Republicans on the sidelines. This was immortalized by the hug-heard-round the world.

(This photo appears to have been taken after the two leaders won their field hockey game. They then apparently went back to the mansion and watched “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and shared a good cry. Next week, it’s an all “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Steel Magnolias” marathon. BTW – I’m totally kidding about everything I just wrote in parenthesis…Heastie actually HATES “Steel Magnolias.”)

Once the governor had the Assembly Democrats on his side on ethics reform, he was able to squeeze the Republicans a bit. But, of course, no one gets everything they want. And to bring the Dems on board for ethics meant sacrificing something on education – an issue of massive importance in the Assembly majority conference. Heastie and his members couldn’t live with what Cuomo wanted in terms of ed reform. Cuomo needed ethics to be his top priority following the arrest of former Speaker Sheldon Silver.

It stands to reason that NO ethics reform really has any teeth unless lawmakers and the governor are willing to have the big conversation, which is banning ALL outside income and making the Legislature full time – with a significant pay raise, as good government groups have proposed. But as the great Nick Reisman noted earlier, that pay increase commission Cuomo gave lip service to all those months ago is apparently also out of the budget along with the Dream Act and the EITC.

Q Poll: NYers Back Disclosure From Elected Officials & Their Significant Others

An overwhelming majority of New York voters – 84 percent – support the idea of elected officials bring required to disclose the sources of their outside income and investments, a new Q poll found.

A smaller number, but still a majority of 64 percent, also believe the spouses and girlfriends of those same officials should be required to make public the source and size of their respective incomes. (The poll did not differentiate between legislative and executive disclosure proposals, which is the focus of debate between the governor and the Senate Republicans).

“Follow the money, New Yorkers say,” remarked Q pollster Mickey Carroll. “Overwhelmingly, they want legislators to tell how much they earn. Legislators say spouses and companions of government folks should have to tell all, too. Voters agree.”

Eighty-nine percent of poll respondents said government corruption is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem in the state today, but only 45 percent support Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s threat of holding up this year’s budget in order to force the Legislature’s hand on ethics reform.

Fifty-four percent of voters disapprove of the way Cuomo is handling ethics in government, and 47 percent believe he’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Cuomo might be able to take some solace in the fact that 62 percent of New Yorkers disapprove of the job the Legislature is doing, compared to its 55-28 job approval rating last December.

There is strong support – 76 percent – for the idea that lawmaker convicted of a felony should lose their public pensions – a proposal included in the two-way deal struck by Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, but one that requires a constitutional amendment to achieve. Support for this idea is strong across party, age, gender and regional groups, the poll found.

As for the claim that is widely made by good government groups and left leaning reformers that establishing a public campaign finance system would go a long way toward getting big money out of the political system and reducing corruption, New Yorkers aren’t really on board. Fifty-four precent oppose the creation of such a system for statewide elected officials and the Legislature.

Fifty-seven percent voiced support for a full-time Legislature with a complete ban on outside income, which is what reform advocates and AG Eric Schneiderman have been pushing – a proposal that goes considerably further than the governor wants at this point.

Speaking of Schneiderman, his approval rating is 45-22, while state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli came in at 35-19.

March 19 Q poll on ethics. by liz_benjamin6490

Assembly Approves Paid Family Leave Measure

The Democratic-led Assembly on Tuesday approved a paid family leave measure as advocates and lawmakers who support the measure hope to make it a reality this session.

The bill passed the chamber, 84-43.

It’s not the first time the Assembly approved such a bill, which would cover up to two-thirds of an employee’s salary and provide for up to 12 weeks for time off.

The Senate’s one-house budget resolution advances a differing measure, which would be funded out of the state’s general fund, with six weeks of coverage and cover up to 50 parcent of the average weekly wage.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had been previously lukewarm to the proposal, seized on the differences.

“This administration strongly supports the notion of providing paid family leave in New York State,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa. “Unfortunately, the Senate and Assembly have advanced differing versions of this policy that do not see eye-to-eye, and that fail to form the comprehensive solution that the issue requires. We need a paid family leave policy that is sustainable, and would provide real protections to employees.”

The statement also criticized the Senate measure, backed by the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, for being “half-a-loaf.”

Still, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, a Queens Democrat and the main sponsor of the Assembly bill, was heartened by the latest push by the Senate.

“Last year in the debate I had colleagues say the Senate would never, ever consider it, so I’m glad it’s taking a step forward,” she said.

IDC Leader Jeff Klein, however, questioned the Assembly’s expansion of the temporary disability insurance fund, which he said would be too costly.

“I think it needs to be increased, it hasn’t been increased for years,” he said. “But that makes it very, very expensive. It would cost $900 million if the state paid for it. It would be a much larger burden not just for the employee but the employer.”

Klein is pushing for a hearing to hash out the differences in the two bills.

“I think we should be open to discussion,” he said. “We should get the business community on board, see what recommendations they make. A lot of the union groups — there is a paid family leave coalition that’s been fighting for this. Let’s make sure all the stakeholders are involved.”

Some business leaders, however, remain staunchly opposed to the measure, saying it would in essence be a tax on employers.

“We’re 100 percent against it,” said Mike Durant of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “We will not negotiate paid family leave just like our stance with minimum wage and it needs to be scuttled as our negotiations conclude.”

Cuomo Plans To Swiftly Sign Anti-Trafficking Bill

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced he would quickly sign an anti-human trafficking bill that was approved in the Democratic-led Assembly this afternoon.

The bill, whose passage had been stalled in the debate over the broader Women’s Equality Agenda, strengthens anti-trafficking provisions and increases penalties.

“Human trafficking is a crime that robs victims of their most fundamental rights, and it affects people in communities across our state – including more than 1,000 children every year,” Cuomo said in a statement. “That is an injustice that simply cannot be allowed to continue in New York, and I look forward to signing this legislation quickly to make our state safer for this vulnerable population.”

The anti-trafficking provision’s passage in the Assembly comes after the Republican-controlled Senate approved provisions in the Women’s Equality Agenda save for the measure codifying Roe v. Wade.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul at Albany’s St. Rose College earlier in the day said the passage of the bill was an acknowledgement of the “political realities.”

“People understand now that the Senate is not willing to vote on the one plank addressing reproductive rights,” Hochul said. “But there are other elements that are so important to getting passed.”

Republicans have staunchly refused to hold a vote on the abortion provision and even before the GOP gained full control of the chamber last year its passage seemed doubtful.

Cuomo campaigned hard on women’s issues, creating a ballot line meant to promote the legislative package and campaigned in a bus called the “Women’s Equality Express.”

The governor and Hochul won, but Republicans gained seats in the Senate.

Hochul today indicated that holding a vote on the anti-trafficking bill was a first step.

“That’s the reality. Elections have consequences,” she said. “We ran hard on this. We had hoped there would be a Senate that would have supported those initiatives especially when they saw how excited women were over it. The reality is you have to have the Senate on board as well. If they’re not prepared to undertake all 10 elements, let’s get as close as we can.”