Lawmakers Assess A Zero-Growth Tax Cap

State lawmakers return to Albany next month with a looming concern for local government and school officials back home: A zero-percent growth in the state’s cap on property taxes.

“That’s good for us taxpayers, but local governments are struggling,” said Democratic Assemblyman John McDonald of Cohoes. “Local governments are going to have to start making some serious decisions about withdrawing services to the taxpayer.”

Both McDonald and Westchester County Assemblywoman Sandra Galef were the lone lawmakers at a brief and sparsely attended Assembly hearing on property taxes on Wednesday, which last less than an hour.

The tax cap itself was altered, albeit slightly, during the previous legislative session’s broader negotiations on rent control in the New York City area. Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to modest changes that allowed for growth in areas like payments in lieu of taxes.

But school districts have in recent weeks raised concerns about a tax cap that will allow for increases of less than 1 percent heading into the next budget season. The tax cap allows for a 2 percent cap on property taxes or limits growth to the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Inflation has typically been under 2 percent since the cap was approved in June 2011.

What this could mean: Lawmakers in an election year will almost certainly be spurred to push for more money in the state budget that would flow to schools and their local municipalities.

“They’re going to be looking to the state for that revenue,” McDonald said of local governments and schools. “Let’s face it: Pension costs are still increasing, the personel costs are increasing. Utility costs are still going up. It’s going to be very challenging for the community to see under the tax cap.”

Galef, meanwhile, pointed to the potential impact on local infrastructure projects suffering from the narrow levy growth. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has made local property taxes a key economic issue for his administration – has generally been opposed to broad-based tax cap changes. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from proposing changes.

“If you wait too long, specifically with the roads, you may end up spending more money at the end of the day,” Galef said. “So, we really have to look at the capital. I’m a real strong believer in the tax cap, but you don’t want to happen for so long that people aren’t looking at certain things for infrastructure. That might be on the table next year.”

Former Ball Staffer Files To Run For Assembly

Colin Schmitt, a former aide to Republican ex-Sen. Greg Ball, has filed to run for an Assembly seat held by Democrat James Skoufis, according to a file this week with the state Board of Elections.

This would be Schmitt’s second attempt to win the seat in the Hudson Valley and comes as Skoufis has publicly considered a run for the state Senate district represented by Republican incumbent Bill Larkin.

Schmitt last run for the post three years ago, losing the primary to Kyle Rodney.

Schmitt is listed as a co-founder of the political consulting firm Ball formed shortly after leaving the Senate in 2012.

Ball moved to Texas shortly after the leaving the Senate.

Lawmaker, Francesa Spar Over Fantasy Sports

“Dean from Long Island” called in to WFAN’s flagship sports talk program to give listeners an update on the fantasy sports hearing in Albany.

What Republican Assemblyman Dean Murray got was an earful from the station’s most prominent drive-time host, Mike Francesa.

In a 14-minute debate that quickly spiraled into shouting (mostly from Francesa), both men debated whether daily fantasy sports constituted a game of skill or a game of chance, otherwise known as gambling.

The debate over fantasy sports started in Albany in the fall after Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a legal challenge against popular fantasy sites FanDuel and DraftKings, arguing their activities are essentially gambling, which is outlawed by the state Constitution.

Murray, along with nearly a dozen lawmakers, spoke with FanDuel and DraftKings attorneys, as well as gambling experts, at an Assembly hearing in Albany on Tuesday.

After the hearing wrapped Murray, an avid fantasy sports participant himself, called into to the Francesa show on The Fan.

The conversation started off almost immediately on the wrong foot, when Murray early in the call said the five-hour long hearing in Albany could ultimately lead to classifying daily fantasy sports as a game of skill for legal purposes.

Francesa insisted daily fantasy sports was gambling, with the sites acting essentially like bookmakers. Murray disagreed.

“Do you know what you’re talking about?” Francesa said, his voice rising. “Do you know how FanDuel makes its money?”

Murray seemed taken aback by the prolonged outburst (though anyone who listens to Francesa can attest, anything from LIPA to Alex Rodriguez can set the host off).

“My God, take a pill,” Murray said at one point.

Later on in the conversation, Francesa castigated Murray for seemingly not understanding what pari-mutual racing is.

“Chief, you know what? You talk like a regular politician,” Francesa said. “That’s what’s embarrassing.”

Daily fantasy sports, he argued, should be treated and licensed “like any other wager.”

“It’s a straight wager. They are setting up a bet between me and someone else,” he said. “It’s legal bookmaking. That’s all it is.”

Strangely, the conversation ends on argument, with Murray and Francesa backing some sort of regulation for the activity.

Here’s the conversation, posted to YouTube:

Coalition Of Women Back Rajkumar For Silver’s Seat

From the Morning Memo:

A coalition of groups representing women in politics is pushing for Jenifer Rajkumar to replace former Assemblyman Sheldon Silver in a special election.

Rajkumar, an attorney and district leader in the 65th Assembly district, previously sought a city council seat.

Silver, 71, lost his seat last week when he was convicted on all seven felony counts of corruption, including extortion, money laundering and theft of honest services.

Rajkumar is one of several Democrats interested in replacing Silver in his lower Manhattan Assembly district. The former speaker stepped down from the top post in January following his arrest, but retained his seat in the back of the Assembly chamber.

“In a nation now ranked 86th in the world in the number of women in elected office and dropping, it is essential that we support the political ascendancy of women like Jenifer Rajkumar,” said Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, the author and political advocate who is a former president and CEO of the Women’s Campaign Fund. “Beyond her obvious qualifications, as a young minority woman she embodies exactly what is needed to correct our nation’s long-term electoral course. I’m proud to support her current candidacy and to have been one of those to encourage her to run for office at the beginning of her bright political career.”

Former Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra also endorsed Rajkumar’s Assembly bid, calling her an “ideal candidate.”

“She has the ability to unite the many different communities in the district and provide a strong voice fighting for the district’s needs. Jenifer has the skill sets and temperament to succeed in New York State government,” Segarra said.

Rajkumar would be joining a Legislature that has seen an increasing number of women holding seats, with female representation hitting a new high of 55 members this year.

But the Assembly has also a poor track record under Silver when it comes to sexual harassment of women.

In 2012, the then-speaker was criticized for his handling of the Vito Lopez harassment case, which included confidential payments to women. The Assembly subsequently reformed how it responds to sexual harassment allegations leveled by staff.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to call a special election for Silver’s seat for April 19, the same day as the presidential primary in New York.

Lawmakers Expect To Regulate Fantasy Sports, One Way Or The Other

For three hours on Tuesday, attorneys for fantasy sports websites DraftKings and FanDuel insisted to lawmakers in the state Assembly the businesses were games of skill, not luck.

“Success at these games is determined by how skillfully assembles their team,” said DraftKings attorney Jonathan Schiller. “This unique organization, selection and assembly, not the performance of any one athlete, not the performance of any one team, dictates how many fantasy sports a fantasy player amasses.”

The seeming consensus after the hearing from state lawmakers, however, was not over whether the fantasy sports should be considered gambling, but how to regulate the increasingly popular online activity.

Nevertheless, the distinction could be key for the future of how daily fantasy sports will be played in New York. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has filed a legal challenge to both DraftKings and FanDuel arguing they provide games of chance, or gambling, which is illegal under the state’s Constitution.

The Assembly’s hearing drew twice as many state lawmakers as a recent hearing on prison oversight. Assembly Racing and Wagering Chairman Gary Pretlow says lawmakers will move to legalize fantasy sports should a court outlaw their activities.

“If the courts rule that it is an illegal act, then we will go in one direction, we will probably legalize it because people are doing it,” said Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, the Mount Vernon Democrat who chairs the chamber’s racing and wagering committee.

And even if fantasy sports are deemed legal, state lawmakers still expect to act on the issue.

“If the courts rule it is a legal act, we will still probably do something,” Pretlow. “There will be regulation in either case.”

Regulating daily fantasy sports is shaping up to be one of the more hot-button issues facing state lawmakers when they start the 2016 session next month.

“I think that if we concentrate on regulation rather than elimination, I think that everyone can come away pretty happy,” said Assemblyman Dean Murray, a Long Island Republican, who staunchly defended daily fantasy sports at the hearing and is an active player.

Schneiderman’s pursuit of fantasy sports has angered fans, but also shined a light on the growing online activity.

“Fantasy sports games are not about a contingent future event,” said fantasy sports attorney Randy Mastro at the hearing. “They’re not about the outcomes of one event, they’re not about the outcome of several events. They’re about the fantasy team you put together as the general manager or owner of your team.”

The attorney general’s office had no comment on the hearing.

Heastie Heads to Israel

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie will depart on a week-long trip to Israel – his first ever trip there – on Sunday, the Bronx Democrat’s office confirmed.

Heastie and 10 fellow Assembly majority conference members will be making the “educational” voyage, departing this Sunday and returning Dec. 22. The cost will be covered by the Jewish Community Relations Council, a spokesman for the speaker said.

There is no fixed itinerary for the trip yet. But while in Israel, the group of New York lawmakers is expected to visit prominent sites and meet with local elected officials.

Heastie has never before been to Israel, but the country remains on the must-visit list for New York politicians seeking to curry favor with the Jewish community back home. (The New York metropolitan area is home to the largest population of Jews outside Israel).

At one time, New York elected officials had to make sure to hit the so-called “three Is” – Israel, Italy and Ireland – to satisfy powerful ethnic voting blocs. Though Israel remains on the list, the other two have been bumped in favor of Puerto Rico, thanks to the rapidly growing clout of New York’s Latino population.

Israel was a frequent stop for Heastie’s predecessor, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is an observant Jew.

Silver accompanied Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Israel last August when the governor, who was seeking a second term at the time, led a delegation to the country in a “demonstration of solidarity” during the nation’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

That was Cuomo’s first international trip since he took office in January 2011. He has since made several other trips – including to Cuba, with which he and other governors are anxious to strengthen ties now that the Obama administration is moving to normalize relations with the communist nation.

Cuomo is expected to make more international trips in his second term, with potential trade missions to Canada, Mexico, Italy and China.

Kolb: Progress, Not Change In Silver-to-Heastie Switch

The change in leadership in the Assembly following Sheldon Silver’s ouster due to a federal corruption scandal hasn’t resulted in significant change, according to the chamber’s leading Republican.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said during an interview on AM970’s “Effective Radio with Bill Samuels” this weekend that the “only difference” between Silver and his successor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, is that Heastie “is paying more attention to his rank-and-file membership.”

Kolb noted that it was unrest among the rank-and-file that led to a failed coup attempt on Silver by former Syracuse-area Assemblyman Michael Bragman in 2000 – the same year Heastie was elected to represent his Bronx district in Albany.

“I think what Carl is saying (is), ‘I’m going to be more attentive to my members so they’ll be happier so I won’t have any insurrections internally,” Kolb told Samuels. “And that’s what he’s doing differently than Shelly.”

During this past session, Heastie, who took over for Silver in early February, made a big effort to listen to and empower his Democratic conference members – even when that meant drawing out negotiations with the governor and the Senate.

The new speaker pledged to change the way the chamber does business to give more clout to rank-and-file members, and he appointed a 12-member working group in April to address the issue.

But Kolb and his fellow Republicans have been largely disappointed by the ongoing lack of parity they have experienced in the chamber under Heastie, though the minority leader did admit the speaker this year allocated capital infrastructure cash to his GOP conference – something Silver “never did.”

The Republicans got $4.4 million to split, Kolb said, while some members – including Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, a Rochester Democrat who battled Heastie for the speakership – received many times more than that for just a single project.

“That’s not change, that’s progress,” Kolb said. “That’s not even fair, and that happens with both majorities in both houses.”

“And that’s sort of where the financial abuse is – not that we shouldn’t have discretionary money to help our districts – but it should be out in the open,” the minority leader continued. “There should be parity, so that no one is getting a political advantage – Republican or Democrat.”

A Day After Conviction, Silver Files For Retirement

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has filed his retirement papers effective Tuesday, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Silver was automatically forced from office on Monday when he was found guilty of seven corruption charges, including money laundering and theft of honest services.

Silver has 44 years of pension service credit and is in Tier I. He officially entered the system on May 24, 1971.

State lawmakers have proposed and approved various measures to have public officials convicted of corruption to forfeit their pensions.

But the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-controlled Assembly remain at odds over a constitutional amendment that would apply pension forfeiture for those who were previously in the system and subsequently convicted.

Assembly Democrats last year initially balked at the amendment over concerns it was too broadly written.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has previously sought to claw back pension benefits from public officials found guilty of corruption, including former Sen. Malcolm Smith and ex-Assemblyman Eric Stevenson.

After Escape, Assembly Lawmakers Discuss Oversight Of Prisons

Nearly six months after two convicted killers escaped from the North Country’s Clinton Correctional Facility, lawmakers in the Assembly on Wednesday pushed for answers at a public hearing on prison oversight.

“The purpose of this hearing is to see and address how we do oversight of correctional system,” said Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Correction. “Is the oversight effective or are there other potential models that might exist?”

In addition to captivating the country, the resulting three week manhunt to find Richard Matt and David Sweat cost millions and upended life in upstate’s northern reaches.

“Aside from the millions of dollars in cost to the state of New York, it also led to the terrorizing of the community for the peple who lived there,” O’Donnell said. “Let me be clear: That is simply unacceptable.”

But life also was upended in the prison itself, inmate advocates said at the hearing. Letters from prisonsers claimed guards sought information about the escape, often using violent techniques.

“The letters alleged horrible, brutal interrogation techniques had been used on some of the prisoners — mostly prisoners who had been housed in the honor block,” said Karen Murtagh, the executive director of the inmate-rights group Prisoners Legal Services.

The hearing’s broader goal was to determine how best to oversee the state’s prison system, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo in recent years has sought to downsize and reduce costs in the process. Lawmakers heard testimony from ombudsman and consultants from Indiana as well as the United Kingdom, while being pitched on changes such as making it easier to review prison abuse cases and make access to them easier.

The union that represents state prison guards, NYSCOPBA, did not testify at the hearing. Instead, the union blasted O’Donnell for what they said was sympathy for inmates and launched a digital ad campaign knocking his New York City residency.

“Unfortunately for Assemblyman O’Donnell, grandstanding won’t make our prisons any safer,” said NYSCOPBA President Mike Powers in a statement. “Rather than vilifying the law enforcement officers, we need leaders to get serious about breaking up the high-tech crime cartels inside our prisons.”

Nevertheless, lawmakers at the hearing stressed the work prison guards perform in a tough environment should be praised.

“The vast majority of these men and women do their jobs incredibly well every single day of the year under incredibly difficult circumstances,” said Republican Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, a North Country lawmaker whose district includes much of the area that was searched during the manhunt.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco also questioned why Matt and Sweat were in the so-called honor block with special privileges, given the murders they committed.

“It seems to me these two guys illustrated good behavior just to get access to these privileges and help with their escape,” Tedisco said.

The escape from Clinton Correctional wasn’t the only topic dominating the hearing. Jonathan Moore, the attorney for the family of Samuel Harrell testified. Harrell died after he was allegedly beaten by guards at Fishkill Correctional Facility.

“We learned from these inmates that Building 21 maintains a beat up squad. Officers who are called to inflict harm on inmates,” Moore said. “One of those guards is nicknamed Captain America.”

Moore testified that records obtained found the state was aware of the squad since 2005.

Neither state corrections officials or the state inspector general testified, citing ongoing investigations. The hearing has been adjourned, with the plan to have state officials testify once those investigations are completed.

Silver’s High Court Chances

SilverFrom the Morning Memo:

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has vowed to appeal his conviction this week on all seven of the federal corruption charges lodged against him by US Attorney Preet Bharara.

According to Albany Law School Prof. Vin Bonventre, that’s a smart strategy – especially if Silver’s cause eventually reaches the nation’s highest court, where a number of justices have already signaled their dislike for the theft of honest services law – a key plank in the prosecution’s case against the ex-Manhattan lawmaker.

“This is a big case; I mean the Supremes don’t hear too many cases, but this is one they might really want to take,” Bonventre said.

“You’re talking about one of the most powerful politicians – not only in New York State, but in the country, for crying out loud,” the professor continued. “He gets convicted under this honest services law, which many of them think is awful.”

“Three of them the last time wanted the whole thing thrown out. So there’s going to be, I suspect, three votes to hear the case. They just need one more vote to hear the case.”

Bonventre noted that the last time the honest services law was altered by the Supreme Court, it benefitted former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who went through two federal corruption trials and remains a free man. More >