State Senate

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.

Dream Deferred

From the Morning Memo:

Last night, a number of Senate Democrats took their frustration with being excluded from the closed-door budget negotiations on the final product, voting “no” on part of the agreement that dealt with transportation, economic development and environmental spending.

There was some testy back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans on the Senate floor during the debate, and you should expect more of the same – if not worse – when it comes time to take up legislation relating to the most controversial parts of this budget: Ethics and education.

It’s a fairly safe bet that Sen. Jose Peralta will be voting “no” on the education bill, if for nothing else than to demonstration his distress over the fact that the DREAM Act did not make it into the final budget deal.

Peralta, clad in his signature DREAM Act T-shirt, which he sports over his chamber-dress-code-appopriate shirt and tie, told me during a CapTon interview last night that he and his fellow Latino lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly are in discussions to reject the education bill, even though they are well aware their “no” votes will be merely symbolic.

Many of the same lawmakers threatened to vote “no” on last year’s budget if the governor failed to include the DREAM Act, which would help undocumented college students pay for college by allowing them to apply for TAP.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not heed that call, and the DREAM Act ended up coming onto the Senate floor for a stand-alone vote, where it died without a single “yes” vote from any GOP senators.

This year, Cuomo included the DREAM Act in his executive budget for the first time, which advocates saw as a very positive development, but many were disappointed that he linked it to the Education Investment Tax Credit in hopes of forcing the Senate GOP’s hand.

This gambit did not work, in part because so many of the Senate GOP’s new – and most politically vulnerable – members specifically campaigned against the DREAM Act and providing any sort of taxpayer-funded support to undocumented immigrants during the 2014 election cycle.

Now Peralta, the main sponsor of the DREAM Act in his chamber, and others are looking to Cuomo to expend some political capital to push the Senate Republicans to pass the measure in the post-budget session.

But Cuomo’s main leverage is in the considerable power afforded to the executive during the budget process, and he declined to use in large part during this year’s talks. The DREAM Act was not the only policy initiative he proposed in his executive budget to fall off the table as the April 1 deadline drew near.

It is possible that the DREAM Act could get linked to something else during the end-of-session horse trading that comes before the so-called “big ugly” – the mishmash of bills passed in a mad rush before lawmakers depart Albany for the summer.

Linkage of a number of education initiatives that didn’t make it into the budget is already under discussion, including EITC, continuation of mayoral control in NYC and raising the charter school cap.

In the meantime, DREAM Act advocates are also planning to exert some pressure on a some of Republican lawmakers – especially on Long Island – whose districts have sizable Latino populations, staging rallies in their districts and engaging local religious leaders to help spread their message.

Senators Phil Boyle, (who was missing from the 2014 DREAM Act vote), and Jack Martins come up fairly frequently as potential targets of the DREAM Act advocates. (Martins voted “no” last year, saying the bill was drafted too broadly). Peralta said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, another Long Islander, will also be targeted.

Boyle told City & State he’s not planning on altering his position on the DREAM Act, even if supporters launch a campaign against him. He plans to continue pushing for a non-taxpayer-funded alternative – several of which were floated to no avail during the budget talks.

Two Democratic senators – Rochester freshman Ted O’Brien, who was defeated by a Republican, Sen. Rich Funke, in last year’s election; and Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder, who conferences with the GOP, also voted “no” in 2014.

Later yesterday afternoon, Peralta issued a statement slamming Skelos for saying the DREAM Act would give undocumented students an unfair advantage over college students with legal immigration status who are forced to take out loans to pay for their education.

Peralta noted that TAP is an entitlement program, which means all students must meet residency and financial requirements to qualify, and to do that, they have to be paying taxes.

“Since Senator Skelos is in the majority, he is in a position to give those kids who take out loans an advantage by increasing the income eligibility from the current $80,000 per household per year to $150,000,” Peralta added.

“This means the kids’ parents would have to make under $150,000 combined to quality for TAP. Senator Skelos has the power now to make this happen but he is not using it.”

“He can help all college students, but he may rather give this money to the rich so they can get tax breaks when buying their private yachts and private planes.”

Expect a lot more where that came from.

The yacht tax break is going to be a very big focus for progressives as the budget battle winds down, even though, as Capital NY’s Laura Nahmias points out this morning, the sales tax exemption for expensive boats had its genesis in both houses of the Legislature, which means both Assembly Democrats AND Senate Republicans were on board.

The measure was not included in the governor’s executive budget proposal.

Espaillat On The ‘Injustice’ Of No DREAM Act

Manhattan Democratic Sen. Adriano Espaillat in a statement this morning called the lack of the inclusion in the DREAM Act in the budget an “injustice” that needs to be corrected.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to include the DREAM Act, which provides tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants, in the 2015-16 state budget and lashed it to the education investment tax credit.

Cuomo last month doubled down, by linking both the EITC and DREAM to the Tuition Assistance Program.

But ultimately both measures fell off the negotiating table. Cuomo cited the lack of desire to pass the education investment tax credit in the Assembly, given its opposition from the state’s teachers unions.

Senate Republicans remain opposed to the DREAM Act and rebuffed an effort to link the measure to a property-tax relief program.

“Today I am reminded of the Langston Hughes poem ‘Harlem’ and its fundamental question ‘what happens to a dream deferred?’ The failure to include DREAM Act funding in the budget is a missed opportunity for New York State to provide relief for hard working students trapped by our nation’s broken immigration system,” Espaillat said. “Immigrants have long been the backbone of this nation and this state and turning our backs on them is tantamount to turning our backs on core American values. It is disheartening that the 4000 undocumented immigrants who graduate from our high schools each year will continue to be denied the same access to higher education as their friends and classmates. While this budget is a step back, we won’t stop fighting until this injustice is corrected.”

The DREAM Act and the tax credit — meant to spur donations to public schools and scholarships — will likely be debated into the post-budget legislative session.

Their chances of passage outside of the budget are doubtful given the leverage landscape shifts away from the governor. Cuomo does have other leverage points he can use, including an expiration of rent control laws tied to the tax cap as well as an expiration of mayoral control for New York City schools.

Four Budget Bills Pop Over Night (Updated)

Four budget bills were introduced before midnight on Saturday, while a broader deal on the state budget is yet to be reached.

Measures introduced last night include spending plans for the legislative and judiciary branches, aid to localities spending, health and mental hygiene and the revenue bill.

Gone from the budget framework is a property-tax rebate proposal akin to a “circuit-breaker” that would tie relief to a household’s income.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters on Saturday at the Capitol the property tax discussion, as well as a minimum wage increase, could be left for later in the legislative session, which runs through June.

Major aspects of the 2015-16 state spending are yet to be ironed out, however.

Lawmakers and Cuomo are yet to reach an agreement on education spending in the state, which is typically the final piece of the budget puzzle.

What makes this year different is that Cuomo is pushing for education reform measures in the budget – including a tougher teacher evaluation criteria and a receivership program for struggling (AKA “failing”) schools.

Assembly Democrats, in particular, have been hesitant to accept Cuomo’s education proposals.

We do know, however, that due to opposition in both houses, education spending in the budget is no longer linked to the reforms, and lawmakers expect to have a district-by-district breakdown of school aid – also known in Albany as “school runs” – in the coming days.

Cuomo had angered local education officials by refusing to release school runs this year, saying the numbers would be vastly different depending on whether lawmakers accepted or rejected his reform proposals. A number of those proposals have fallen off the budget negotiation table.

It is expected the final education aid increase will stand at around $1.4 billion, if not more.

At the same time, Cuomo is also pushing Senate Republicans to accept new disclosure measures for outside legal clients of state lawmakers.

As of Sunday morning, neither the massive education, labor and family assistance bill or the ethics bill has appeared in print — meaning both will likely require a message of necessity from Cuomo to waive the required three-day aging process if officials want to meet Tuesday’s on-time budget deadline.

Cuomo is due back in Albany later today after appearing at the Greek Independence Day Parade in his role as grand marshal.

Lawmakers are also due back to the Capitol later in the day to conference the latest in the budget talks.

UPDATE: The Assembly Democrats are scheduled to conference early this evening. The Senate Republicans are not conferencing again until tomorrow at noon.

Minimum Wage Hike Falls From Budget, Skelos Says

An increase in the state’s minimum wage has been dropped from the state budget, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Thursday morning confirmed.

Speaking with reporters outside of his office, Skelos said the debate over the wage hike had devolved into a “bidding war” thanks to competing proposals from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“It seems like somebody says $10.50, then somebody says $13 and then de Blasio says $15 and it’s just like a bidding war without any real thought process,” Skelos said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had proposed in January a minimum wage hike of $11.50 for New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in the state. De Blasio, in a separate proposal, wanted a minimum wage of $13 for the city, indexed to the rate of inflation.

Skelos had not been enthused over the initial wage hike to begin with, but today said there should be discussions such as workers compensation and regulatory reform with any minimum wage conversation as well.

“There are a lot of issues that should be part of that, rather than a bidding war like how far I can go,” Skelos said.

The minimum wage in New York is currently $8.75 and due to increase to $9 by the end of the year.

Minimum wage and anti-poverty advocates had pushed Cuomo to include a new minimum wage increase in the state budget this year after they were dissatisfied with a deal struck two years ago on an increase, which they said was too slow.

Stewart-Cousins: Don’t Hold School Aid ‘Hostage’

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Thursday weighed in on the education funding discussions in the state budget, saying in a statement school aid should not be “held hostage” in the ongoing effort instill education reforms.

“Funding for New York State schools should not be held hostage due to the ongoing debate over how best to reform our education system. Our state’s students need help and we have a responsibility to ensure their schools are provided necessary funding immediately. Any delays or excuses to avoid adequate funding will simply hurt our students and that is unacceptable.”

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi weighed in on Twitter in response to Stewart-Cousins: “More & more money w/ no reforms keeps special interests happy, but does nothing to help kids trapped in failing schools.”

There is talk of forming an education commission to develop some of the reform criteria, including new standards for teacher evaluations.

Cuomo wants to boost education aid by as much as $1.1 billion, with the funding strings attached to backing the reforms.

Lawmakers this month backed a $1.4 billion hike in education aid.

Both the Senate and Assembly are due to leave Albany later today after the scheduled session, but could return at some point this weekend if a framework deal on the budget is reached.

Updated: The education reform group StudentsFirstNY responds.

“Students in New York schools should not be held hostage by legislators kowtowing to the special interests that have created our broken education system,” said Tenicka Boyd, the group’s Director of Organizing. “Senator Stewart-Cousins and her colleagues should immediately pass the Governor’s budget and give New York kids the funding and school reform they deserve. Her suggestion that we should turn a blind eye while the system fails another generation of children is unconscionable.”

Cuomo’s Second Term Blues

From the Morning Memo:

A major facet of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first-term power was his power to persuade, cajole and pressure state lawmakers and elected officials to bend to his will.

This year, the opposite appears to be occurring.

Now entering his second term, the governor appears to have lost high-profile debates in the state budget session to the state’s teachers union on education issues while he’s had difficulty in getting Senate Republicans to agree to disclosure legislation.

Those were once nominal allies of the governor, like mainline Senate Democrats, have little hesitation in criticizing him, either.

“It sounds like what we’re headed towards is a glorified extender which keeps the government running, but takes all the major issues out of it,” said Sen. Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who is the deputy leader in the chamber, in a Capital Tonight interview.

Indeed, budget lines in the sand from Cuomo over ethics, education reform, the DREAM Act and education tax credit melted away in the last several days. Jettisoned from the budget talks, too, were discussions over juvenile justice reform and curtailing sexual assault on college campuses (funding for raising the age of criminal responsibility is still under discussion in the budget talks).

Every budget year is always different, but this does not appear to be shaping up to be the like packages of the first term, which included long-sought reforms in addition to being on time.

Part of that is Cuomo’s skill as a negotiator. Gianaris, in the interview, added a second factor: Cuomo’s mandate.

“There’s always a deference to a governor who is recently elected in his first term,” he said. “There’s a mandate there”

He cited Republican George Pataki who, in his first several years, won major victories on the death penalty and tax cuts, but ran into difficulty legislatively later in his time as governor.

Then, like now, the mandate for Cuomo appears to be waning, which has encouraged lawmakers in both parties to push back.

“As that fades, I think the Legislature is emboldened to speak up and stand up a little more,” Gianaris said. “Now we’re seeing, coming off an election the governor scored 52 percent or so of the people that turned out, I think people are feeling on the legislative side, and we’re talking about the majorities as well, a little emboldened to make that case. That’s a natural phenomenon, I’ve seen it happen with other governors and I think we’re seeing it now.”

Granted, Cuomo has found ways in his first four years to win major victories outside of the budget: Same-sex marriage, gun control, tax reform, a new pension tier and previous ethics victories just to name a few.

Cuomo can still turn his year around in Albany, but he’ll have to do without the powers afforded the governor in the budget-making process.

DeFran: Senate Close On Ethics Deal With Cuomo (Updated)

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco this afternoon said the GOP conference was close to an agreement with Gov. Andrew Cuomo on new disclosure requirements in the state budget.

“What’s on the table is not satisfactory,” he said. “What we discussed today is a possible solution to the disclosure issue. Again, we still need something in writing.”

DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, indicated to reporters that multiple drafts on disclosure have been passed back and forth between lawmakers in the Senate and the governor’s office.

“There’s a framework, but we’ve seen and the governor has seen situations where we think we have ideas we agree to but someone doesn’t believe it accurately reflects what was agreed to,” DeFrancisco said. “It’s not a situation that some thought it was, it’s not going to blow up an on-time budget.”

DeFrancisco indicated that one possible compromise on disclosure for outside legal clients would be to have state lawmakers reveal only those who have business before the state.

“We’re trying to narrow the necessary disclosure,” he said, adding, “The real issue is what has to be disclosed.”

Updated: Melissa DeRosa, a spokeswoman for the governor, notes DeFrancisco’s statements on a potential deal are already enshrined in law (At this point, entities with business before the state disclose, not lawmakers).

“What’s being reported that Senator DeFrancisco is describing is not disclosure, it is current law,” DeRosa said. “As the Governor has said, he will not enact a budget that doesn’t include an ethics package with real disclosure of legislator’s outside income, and he meant it.”

Cuomo has previously reached an agreement with Assembly Democrats on ethics legislation that would create new disclosure requirements, campaign finance regulations and travel reimbursement reform.

But a deal with the Senate, where a number of lawmakers are lawyers who work for law firms that represent clients with interests before state, has been more difficult to reach for Cuomo.

An ethics agreement with the Senate would be one of the final puzzle pieces in order to achieve a broader deal on the state budget, which is due on Tuesday.

Cuomo has pledged to hold up an agreement if ethics legislation is not included, a promise he made last month following the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges.

Lawmakers in both chambers are still sorting out Cuomo’s education proposals, which may include the creation of a commission to enact reforms.

“Neither the governor the Senate has raised our hands and said enough is enough,” DeFrancisco said. “As long as we keep talking, there’s hope it will get done.”

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.

Senate Dems Concur With GOP on Disclosure for Significant Others

From the Morning Memo:

Somewhere, pigs are flying.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is usually lightning quick in highlighting the differences between her conference and the Senate Republicans on just about everything, has managed to find something on which she and Majority Leader Dean Skelos actually agree.

“It’s important that we do ethics reform that is comprehensive and includes all branches of government,” the Yonkers Democrat said during a Capital Tonight interview last night.

“We’re looking at changes in ethics that give all New Yorkers…the feeling that everybody is working on their behalf. We could certainly make rules that apply, and a lot of these things could and should apply to all of us.”

In other words: What’s good for the Legislature should also be good for the executive branch.

I asked Stewart-Cousins if she also agrees with Skelos that spouses and significant others should also be required to disclosure their outside income. “Yes, of course,” she replied.

“A significant other, or a spouse, or a domestic partner; I think our government has set up specific rules and recognition…and I think they should be treated equally under the law as well.”

That’s a loophole in the two-way ethics reform deal struck earlier this week by Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – and it’s one Skelos has been highlighting, though he insists his intention is not to single out the governor’s longtime live-in girlfriend, Food Network Star Sandra Lee, who has been very successful, professionally speaking, and has many quite lucrative contracts.
Generally speaking, the governor gets his back up when he perceives that someone is targeting his family. And the administration has reacted to Skelos accordingly, through a snarky tweet from Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi about being willing to “negotiate disclosures of all girlfriends.”

Stewart-Cousins does not approve of the level to which this discussion has sunk, saying:

“We’re all adults, and the issues that we are talking about have to be treated very, very seriously, because, again, it reflects on the trust level of the people we serve…putting some extra measures in place, I hope, reassures the public and puts trust back in. So, we shouldn’t be devolving into playing around.”

For the record, Stewart-Cousins remains hopeful that her effort to be included in the closed-door budget negotiations – a cause that has been taken up now by people outside the state Capitol – will be successful before the April 1 deadline.

The senator said she believes it’s up to the governor to invite her to participate. (He has said it’s up to the legislative leaders).

But she won’t consider him anti-woman if he fails to extend an invitation. Her failure to be included will only serve as proof of how much “work” women need to do to be taken seriously and treated as equals in Albany, Stewart-Cousins said.