State Senate

A Wonkish Debate Over Mayoral Control

Lawmakers in the state Senate engaged with Mayor Bill de Blasio for nearly four hours on Wednesday on the renewal of mayoral control of New York City schools.

For de Blasio, the appearance in Albany came with pitfalls: He’d be testifying before Senate Republicans, a conference that has held deep antipathy for him and his policies, which has only increased in the wake of an investigation into his fundraising efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates in 2014.

In the end, however, the mayor’s testimony and exchanges with lawmakers from both parties was largely cordial and amounted to a lengthy discussion on education policy issues facing New York City.

The only actual fireworks came when de Blasio was challenged by Republican Sen. Terrence Murphy, who has been a staunch critic of the mayor and is a freshman lawmaker from a suburban Senate district that includes Putnam and Westchester counties.

“Convince me,” Murphy said, “with all the allegations going on in your office why I should vote for mayoral control.”

De Blasio responded by pointing to successes under the mayoral control program, including higher graduation rates and test scores as well as an expansion of computer science courses.

“These are major changes in the way we approach education,” de Blasio said. “It’s only possible under a mayoral control system.”

Murphy, however, wasn’t necessarily convinced.

“There’s one thing you forgot and that’s the trust factor,” Murphy said. “You have to have the trust of the people.”

The mayor shot back: “The public trusts the actual positive changes in their lives.”

And he added the allegations that have been raised shouldn’t count against the mayoral control policy itself or his administration.

“In our democracy, we don’t judge by allegations,” he said, “we judge by facts.”

Murphy’s political allies had initially complained over the Democratic fundraising tactics in 2014, when donors at de Blasio’s urging gave heavily to county party committees, which in turn supported candidates running in key battleground races.

Murphy succeeded in the Senate Republican Greg Ball, a maverick GOP lawmaker and conservative firebrand who moved to Texas rather than seek re-election.

De Blasio’s political team had backed Democrat Justin Wagner to replace Ball, one of a half-dozen competitive races that year.

Mayoral control is due to expire in June after de Blasio received a 12-month extension last year.

De Blasio, In The Lion’s Den

From the Morning Memo:

Amid swirling investigations into his fundraising and political activities, Mayor Bill de Blasio is traveling to potentially hostile territory: A committee hearing led by Senate Republicans. 

The mayor is in Albany today to defend and push for an extension of mayoral control of New York City, a program that was only extended for 12 months last year, and is due to expire once again in June. 

The hearing comes at a sensitive time for de Blasio, whose administration is being scrutinized over a variety of fundraising and political efforts, including an ill-fated push in 2014 for Senate Democrats to gain a governing majority in the chamber.

De Blasio has defended his aid for the Senate Democrats, which involved large contributions made to county Democratic committees, which in turn helped individual candidates running in key battleground races.

Even before the investigations, Senate Republicans have ben deeply skeptical of de Blasio given his previous efforts to thwart their hold on power in Albany, the last vestige of GOP statewide control in New York government.

Meanwhile, de Blasio this week openly questioned how a Board of Elections memorandum written by an independent enforcement counsel hand-picked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo leaked to the press.

The memorandum, written by Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman, recommended criminal prosecution over the 2014 Senate fundraising campaign, saying it was an overt attempt to circumvent fundraising limits.

Still, Senate Republicans aren’t expected to do away with mayoral control entirely. The GOP conference has indicated they agree with the program philosophically.

“There is a person that’s elected to the position of mayor,” said Brooklyn Sen. Marty Golden, a Republican, in an interview last month.

“He should have full control. He has full control over the police department, the fire department, the transportation department. He should have full control over the educational system as well.”

Tom Libous Dies At 63

Republican former Sen. Tom Libous died after a long battle with cancer, his spokesman said late Tuesday afternoon.

“With great sorrow and sadness the Libous family has shared the news that our friend Senator Tom Libous passed away this evening surrounded by family and friends,” said spokesman Emmanuel Priest. “Funeral arrangements are pending.”

Libous was 63.

He had moved to hospice care in recent days, a spokesman told Gannet’s Albany bureau.

A longtime power broker in the Southern Tier, Libous was forced from office in 2015 after he was found guilty of lying to federal investigators in a case stemming from his son receiving a job at a politically connected law firm in Westchester County.

In Binghamton, Libous had sought to steer vital economic development projects to an area that was starved for economic success as well as attention from the state. He was especially disappointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to ban high-volume hydrofracking, a natural gas extraction process believed to be a potential boon for the area.

Libous was also a garrulous presence in Albany and was an accessible lawmaker to reporters who had sought, but never achieved the top post as majority leader. He was also considered a canny tactician as well as a prolific political fundraiser.

As deputy majority leader, Libous was the leader of the GOP conference’s floor operations, including the infamous 2009 coup in which two Democratic lawmakers switched to the Republican side, stalling any activity in the chamber for a month.

Libous grew up in Johnson City and worked at his family’s grocery store in Binghamton, an experience that informed his policy pushes for small business protections.

First elected to the Senate in 1988, Libous succeeded another Binghamton power broker, the late Warren Anderson. As majority leader, Anderson pushed for a piece of the Albany pie to go to Binghamton and the largely rural Southern Tier.

But Libous would never obtain the majority leader post, even joking about it in a 2012 LCA Show skit.

A conservative in an increasingly liberal state, Libous was never ideological when it came to getting what he wanted for the district, including the formation of a pharmacy college. He was said it have a warm relationship with Cuomo, who made a surprise visit to his son’s wedding.

It was Libous’s aid for his son that ultimately landed him under the microscope of federal investigators. Lbous was convicted last summer of lying to the FBI during a 2010 interview in which the lawmaker claimed he could not recall the circumstances of his son Matthew’s job at a Westchester County law firm.

In the end, Libous was convicted of a sole perjury charge and automatically removed from the Senate. He was confined to house arrest due to his terminal illness.

His former colleagues, however, recalled Libous as a loyal figure.

Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein said he was “deeply saddened” by the death of Libous.

“I served alongside Senator Libous for many years, at one point even standing side-by-side as Floor Leaders,” Klein said. “I will always remember him for his loyalty to his family and dedication to constituents.”

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in a statement said Libous was a “larger-than-life” figure with a “common man’s touch.”

“Quite simply, to know Tom Libous was to love him. He was universally admired by Democrats and Republicans, which speaks volumes about his character,” Flanagan said. “May God bless and keep him, and give his incredible wife Fran, the boys and their entire family strength at this difficult time. To me, Tom Libous will always be a friend, a mentor, and one of the finest Senators this state has ever known.”

As Kaminsky Is Sworn In, Senate Dems Call For Ethics Reforms

Todd Kaminsky is expected to be sworn in as a new senator on Tuesday at 2 p.m. after running a platform largely on ethics reform.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are seizing on a Siena College poll released Tuesday morning that found a broad majority of voters want ethics reform and anti-corruption measures approved this year.

A plurality of voters believe ethics legislation should be the top issue facing the Legislature in the remainder of the session.

“With the recent election of Todd Kaminsky replacing former Republican Leader Dean Skelos and today’s poll, it is clear that the people of New York are demanding real change,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “We must stop hiding behind the status quo and pass real ethics reforms. I hope the Senate Republicans will finally get this message and help clean up Albany.”

A host of ethics issues swirl in Albany and in New York as a whole.

Ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is being sentenced this afternoon for his corruption conviction, facing more than 14 years in federal prison.

A former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, is being investigated for his consulting work with companies that have business before the state.

And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is under investigation for his role in aiding Senate Democrats in 2014, when his political allies sought to funnel money through county party committees in an apparent effort to help individual candidates.

Republicans last month pointed to a donation from an untraceable LLC to the Nassau County Democratic Committee, which had aided Kaminsky’s special election bid to replace ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who is being sentenced later this month for his own corruption conviction in December.

SD-49: Farley Won’t Seek Re-Election

Sen. Hugh Farley, one of the longest serving members of the state Senate, announced Tuesday he won’t seek re-election to the chamber.

In a statement, the Schenectady-area Republican cited the ongoing health issues facing his wife.

“I wish to announce that I will not be seeking re-election to the 49th Senate District this fall,” Farley said in a statement. “The love of my life, Sharon, my wife of 57 years, is now dealing with several health issues and it is my desire and responsibility to spend more time with her and my family.”

First elected in 1976, the 83-year-old Farley’s district comprises parts of Schenectady and Saratoga counties.

His retirement makes him the latest member of the narrowly divided Senate to not return in 2017. Sen. Michael Nozzolio, a Republican from the Finger Lakes region, is due to leave the Senate this year following heart surgery.

Republican Sen. Jack Martins, too, is running in a competitive primary for Congress on Long Island.

Democratic Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson is leaving the Senate at the end of the legislative session June, when she is due to take a job with the Cuomo administration.

Democratic Sen. Marc Panepinto is retiring after one term following allegations of misconduct in his office.

Farley’s retirement has the potential to put the seat in play, though the district has been a safe Republican seat for decades. Assemblyman Jim Tedisco has already been floated as a potential successor to Farley in the Senate.

Lawmakers Call For Legislation To Combat ‘Zombie’ Properties

Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein alongside Republican Sen. Terrence Murphy on Monday pushed for a measure that is designed to have increased oversight of bank-owned residences in order to ensure proper maintenance and an expedited foreclosure process.

“The fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis hurts taxpaying homeowners the most,” Klein said. “Banks, who own properties through foreclosure, let homes languish in awful states of disrepair that devalue surrounding homes even though they must by law maintain these properties. Worse, zombie properties that are in the legal limbo of foreclosure rot in communities throughout the state negatively impacting property values. This is a problem across New York State affecting homeowners’ greatest assets and we must hold banks accountable.”

So-called “zombie” properties — vacant residences that have fallen into foreclosure limbo and the owners have essentially abandoned — have increased in the wake of the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial meltdown in the last decade.

Both Klein and Muprhy are pushing for the legislation as the problem has become particularly acute in suburban areas. In Murphy’s district alone, properties owned by banks have led to $846,003 in depreciation.

When it comes to zombie properties, there has been $1.38 million in property value depreciation, according to a report released by Klein’s office.

The bill the lawmakers are backing would require banks to have greater responsibility for the properties they own and required them to speed up the foreclosure process. Banks would also be on the hook for maintaining zombie properties and create a reinvestment program.

“These zombie homes not only prove to be an eyesore in our communities but pose real dangers to our neighbors and children,” Murphy said. “It is not unreasonable to hold big banks accountable to properly care for and maintain the properties under their ownership in the Hudson Valley. I thank Senator Klein for his leadership on this issue and look forward to our continued bipartisan partnership to protect our local neighborhoods from the modern day zombie attacks.”

The Next Great American Bank Robbery–40th SD (1) by Nick Reisman

SD-9: Kaminsky’s Victory Is Certified

Democrat Todd Kaminsky was certified the winner on Monday of a special election held earlier this month to replaced Republican former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Kaminsky defeated Republican Chris McGrath by a narrow margin, and a campaign aide has suggested a legal challenge to the certification could be in the works, though one is yet to be made.

Kaminsky, first elected to the Assembly in 2014, ran the Senate campaign on a platform of ethics reform after Skelos was ousted following a corruption conviction in December.

The Nassau County Republican will be sentenced later this month.

“I am honored that my neighbors have elected me to deliver for Long Island and clean up Albany as their State Senator,” Kaminsky said in a statement.

“For far too long, South Shore taxpayers have been the victim of politicians who put themselves before their community and I pledge to fight everyday to return our state government to the people. Fighting corruption so that taxpayers come first is my top priority and this week I will immediately begin my push to ban outside income, close the llc loophole, and reform our outdated campaign finance system.”

Kaminsky is joining a narrowly divided and fractious Senate chamber, where Republicans are now in a numerical minority, but have formed alliances with breakaway Democrats to maintain power. Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder conferences with the Senate GOP.

Once Kaminsky is seated, likely on Tuesday when the Legislature returns to Albany, Democrats do not plan to push for a leadership change this session.

“I congratulate Senator Todd Kaminsky on his victory and I look forward to having him join the Senate Democratic Conference,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

“This district has been without representation for close to 5 months and we look forward to his immediate swearing in. It’s clear that Todd’s record of delivering results for the people of Nassau County and his message of ethics reforms, government accountability and responsible leadership is what the voters wanted and they now deserve to finally have that voice representing them. It’s time to move forward and get down to doing the people’s work.”

Senate Dems Plan For Kaminsky To Be Seated

From the Morning Memo:

Senate Democrats expected Todd Kaminsky will be seated by Tuesday in the Senate, though Republicans aren’t ruling out a fight to his certification.

A spokesman for the Senate Democrats this weekend said Kaminsky’s victory over Republican Chris McGrath is expected to be certified on Monday.

Kaminsky was declared the apparent winner on Friday in last month’s special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in Nassau County — a hotly contested and costly race ahead of the general election contests.

The Nassau County Democrat, currently a member of the state Assembly first elected in 2014, is poised to replace scandal-scarred Republican former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in the upper house.

Skelos, who was forced from office in December, is due to be sentenced on corruption charges later this month.

But Republicans are hoping to link Kaminsky’s win to the investigation into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to help Democrats take control of the Senate in 2014, which has focused on the transfer of funds to county Democratic committees that ultimately aided individual candidates.

In the days before the special election, Nassau County Democrats received a $50,000 donation from a Delaware-based company. The county committee heavily supported Kaminsky’s bid for Senate.

“Given the seriousness of the campaign finance issues and the potential criminality that has arisen regarding Todd Kaminsky’s campaign, we are continuing to review all options,” said McGrath campaign spokesman E. O’Brien Murray.

Asked if that meant pushing for a potential recount of all votes in the district, Murray responded: “Means reviewing all options.”

5 Questions For The Rest Of Session

From the Morning Memo:

State lawmakers are returning to Albany with a drastically different political landscape than when they left three weeks ago.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and administration is under investigation for political fundraising activities stemming from his effort to help Democrats gain control of the state Senate.

A former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Joe Percoco, is under federal investigation for reportedly failing to properly report income as broader scrutiny from the U.S. attorney’s office is placed on the governor’s signature economic development program for western New York, the Buffalo Billion.

In the Senate, Democrat Todd Kaminsky appears poised to replaced Republican former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, makign the GOP technically a minority party when it comes to enrollment.

And there’s still 21 legislative session days to go in the calendar — a virtual eternity in Albany time. Then, lawmakers return to their districts to run for re-election and, for a few, campaign in congressional primaries.

Here are five questions for the rest of the session. More >

Amid Fundraising Investigation, de Blasio To Make Albany Appearance

Amid an ongoing investigating into his fundraising activities, Mayor Bill de Blasio will face his staunchest institutional critics next week in person as Senate Republicans hold a hearing on the future of mayoral control of New York City schools.

NY1’s Zack Fink on Friday confirmed de Blasio will appear in Albany for the hearing, which was called earlier this year by Senate Education Committee Chairman Carl Marcellino, a Nassau County Republican.

Mayoral control of city schools is due to expire at the end of June. Lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to a 12-month extension of the program, while de Blasio had sought a permanent extension of the control.

De Blasio faces multiple inquiries into his efforts in 2014 to help Democrats take full control of the Senate as well as his relationships with donors to the Campaign For One New York.

Scrutiny has been placed in particular on the funneling of campaign donations from donors to county Democratic committees that ended up backing individual candidates. The county committees were able to transfer the funds well above the individual donor contribution limits.

De Blasio last testified in Albany in February to discuss the proposed state budget. At the time, Senate Republicans grilled him over whether New York City should be subject to a cap on property tax increases.

Senate Republicans plan to cover a range of issues with mayoral control, including student performance, graduation rates, and “the effectiveness of having a single person accountable for the public school system as compared to the previous community board system.”

A second hearing is scheduled for May 19 in New York City.