State Senate

Libous Kept From Albany Following Surgeries

Sen. Tom Libous’s office on Tuesday announced the Binghamton Republican underwent two surgeries that have kept him from returning to Albany.

In a statement, Libous’s spokesman said the deputy majority leader remains in contact with Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos by phone and email.

“During Senator Libous’ recovery from recent surgery to repair a detached screw in his spine, it was discovered that additional follow-up surgery was needed,” said spokesman Emmanuel Priest. “That surgery took place on Monday. While he’s on the mend, Senator Libous will continue to work with Senate Majority Leader Skelos, Senate staff and voters in his district by phone and email. When cleared by his doctor, he looks forward to returning to Albany for the remainder of Session.”

Libous was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and, in 2012, it had spread to his lungs.

Libous remains under indictment for a single charge of lying to the FBI regarding his son’s employment at a politically connect law firm in Westchester County.

He is the second-highest ranking lawmaker in the state Senate.

His absence comes as Skelos, a Long Island Republican, is under federal investigation.

Top Senate Republicans Affirm Support For Skelos

Top Republicans in the state Senate on Tuesday affirmed their support for Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who is under federal investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office.

The GOP conference is meeting privately this afternoon, their first session together after The New York Times revealed that Skelos is under a federal probe for potentially placing undue influence to help an Arizona-based company.

Republicans entering the closed-door meeting insisted Skelos had their support and brushed off talk of the investigation, the latest to ensnare a state lawmaker.

“It seems to be the thing of the day to be investigated,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco said. “Being the thing of the day, what do you say? I’m not worried, I’m concerned about the pressure he’s going under as you would be.”

The Syracuse Republican, who has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Skelos should he be forced to step down, insisted he wasn’t interested in the job.

“Nothing’s going to happen and I’m not interested,” DeFrancisco said.

Lawmakers want to turn the page, with an eye toward dealing with the contentious Common Core education issues as well as concerns about testing in public schools.

The session runs through June, and lawmakers will also have to consider an extension of rent control regulations for New York City as well as mayoral control of public schools.

“We want to get some productive things done rather than just languishing over an undisclosed investigation,” DeFrancisco said.

Nevertheless, the Skelos investigation remains a cloud over a state Capitol that has seen its share of corruption arrests, most recently with the indictment of now former Speaker Sheldon Silver of the Assembly on fraud and extortion charges.

Sen. Ken LaValle, a Long Island Republican, would not deny he had been issue a subpoena in the case.

“That’s a non-issue,” he said. “I’m not going to answer.”

But at the same time, he also reiterated his support for Skelos, adding that he is yet to be charged and the investigation at the moment remains ongoing.

“They have trust and faith in him,” he said referring to the GOP conference. “Don’t you think you’re being a little presumptuous?”

Funke Bill Would Repeal The Yacht And Airplane Tax Break

When it comes to the tax breaks for boats and aircraft in the state budget, Rochester-area Republican Sen. Rich Funke appears to be having some buyer’s remorse.

Funke on Monday announced he was introducing a bill that would repeal the tax break, which exempts sales tax when it comes to the purchase of boats and aircraft of more than $230,000.

In a legislative memorandum attached to the bill, Funke notes sales tax breaks can serve a justifiable purpose when contributing to a greater societal good, such as clean energy.

“Sales tax exemptions should not be used however, to provide benefits to a very few New Yorkers who can afford a particular product, while producing no discernible job creation benefit,” the bill memo states. “The sales tax exemption for certain yachts and planes is bad public policy. Tax reductions should be broad based and above-all they should provide benefits to average
hard working New Yorkers.”

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has defended the tax break, which he said could help generate jobs and make New York more competitive with states like Florida.

At the same time, the tax break is seen as a potential boon to boat builders and airplane manufacturers, as well as those who operate marinas and airports around the state.

The measure is seen as considerably bad optics as lawmakers did not take up a minimum wage increase in this year’s budget — a fact that hasn’t escape liberal critics who had pushed for the wage hike.

Senate Democrats, too, noted that Funke backed the budget as whole before calling for a repeal of the sales tax break.

“I’m not sure who Senator Funke thinks he is fooling,” Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy said. “Less than a month ago he voted for this outrageous tax break rather than a minimum wage increase and now he is trying to fool the voters into thinking he wants to repeal it. In four short months Funke has proven he will say one thing in his district and then once in Albany he will go along with his Republican colleagues no matter how much it hurts the people of New York.”

Updated: Jesse Sleezer, a spokesman for Funke, responded to the criticism from Senate Democrats.

“Every single Democrat Senator had the opportunity to take-on the Yacht Tax Break after the Budget and only Senator Funke stepped to the plate. Talk is cheap, especially when it’s hot air, so while partisan Democrats play political games in Albany, Senator Funke will be busy standing up for Monroe and Ontario counties.”

2015 Yacht Tax Break Repeal Memo by Nick Reisman

Top Lawmakers Often Under Prosecutors’ Scrutiny

From the Morning Memo:

The job of Senate Majority Leader is not an easy one.

And in recent years, the lawmaker occupying the top post in the state Senate has faced serious legal problems. Just ask Republican Joe Bruno.

“In my mind and in my heart it is not over until it’s over. And I think it is far from over,” Bruno said at the time of his second trial.

Bruno was eventually acquitted of the theft of honest services.

The same can’t be said for Democrats Malcolm Smith or Pedro Espada, both of whom were sentenced to jail time in separate corruption scandals. Senator John Sampson, meanwhile, is under indictment for embezzlement. All three happen to be former Senate leaders as well. Republican Deputy Senate Majority Leader Tom Libous faces a charge of lying to the FBI.

“We’re going to fight them. We’re going to fight them because I’ve spent the last 26 years working very hard for the people of the Southern Tier. I’m going to continue to do that,” Libous, a Binghamton Republican, said.

And then there’s Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, the former speaker who is under indictment and accused of taking bribes and kickbacks he masked as legal referrals.

“I am very confident I will be successful in the legal action and I will be exonerated,” Silver said in January.

And now another legislative leader is in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Last month, Skelos didn’t directly negotiate ethics reforms with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and instead let the talks be conducted by other lawmakers.

The investigations by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara are seemingly targeting Albany’s proverbial three men in a room: the Assembly Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader and the governor. earlier this year Bharara criticized how power in state government can be centralized in only three men.

“If you’re one of the three men in a room you keep people in the dark because you can. You punish independent thinking, because you can. You demand lock step loyalty because you can,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in February.

Skelos hopes to avoid the fate of his last four predecessors and said in a statement this week he’s cooperating with the investigation.

Senate Rs To Goo-Goos: ‘Get A Life’

From the Morning Memo:

Senate Republicans are pushing back on any inference they sought to block reclassifying limited liability companies in order to restrict their political giving.

Closing the so-called LLC loophole on Thursday was put to a vote at the state Board of Elections, with the proposal to reclassify them as partnerships.

The commissioners deadlocked, with the two Republican commissioners not supporting the move.

The newest co-chairman of the board is Peter Kosinski, a former counsel to the Senate Republicans, who was appointed only this week.

Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif in a statement, however, noted there are plenty of other areas in which campaign donations have flooded into candidates’ campaign coffers — with some help from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“As soon as the so-called good government groups have anything to say about the unlimited money that unions pump into the coffers of Democrats or the dollars that Mayor de Blasio funnels to Upstate County Democrat Party Committees, we may start taking them seriously,” Reif said. “Until then, they should get a life.”

The statement comes as Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is facing an investigation from federal prosecutors over potentially placing undue influence on an Arizona company that employed his son Adam.

Skelos in a statement released yesterday said he was cooperating with the investigation, which is being led by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office.

The debate and vote at the board came after a sustained push from good-government advocates as well as left-leaning organizations like the Working Families Party to raise the issue of having a non-legislative solution to the LLC issue.

LLCs have been used to funnel millions of dollars into campaigns, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo as one of its top beneficiaries.

Cuomo has said in the past that the method of LLC donations is “not a loophole, it’s the law.”

On Thursday, his office expressed disappointment the board failed to reclassify the entities in order to prevent the unlimited donations.

Report: Prosecutors Eye Skelos, Son

Federal prosecutors are presenting evidence to a grand jury in case involving both Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, The New York Times reported this evening.

According to the newspaper, the hiring of Adam Skelos by an Arizona-based company AbTech Industries, is one focus of the inquiry. The company reportedly was awarded a storm-water treatment contract despite not being the lowest bidder.

Prosecutors are trying to determine if Skelos used any influence as a top state lawmaker to influence AbTech.

The paper also reported subpoenas from federal prosecutors have been sent out in recent weeks, including to several Long Island state senators.

An individual with direct knowledge of the subpoenas that they were sent out within the past week to eight Long Island senators.

The subpoenas asked for any documents from Jan. 1, 2013 to the present regarding the state budget, four or five different companies — including the Arizona company mentioned in the Times’ story.

Questions swirling around Skelos will only inject more uncertainty in a state Capitol that has been rocked by the arrest of now former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who is accused of masking legal referrals as bribes and kickbacks, resigned from the speakership after his arrest.

The Skelos news also comes a year after the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was shuttered following an agreement on ethics reform in the state budget in 2014.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office took control of records generated by the commission weeks later. Bharara is investigating cases pursued by the commission as well as the circumstances surrounding panel closing down.

DeFrancisco To Deliver GOP Rebuttal At LCA Show

Syracuse Sen. John DeFrancisco will deliver the Republican response at the annual Legislative Correspondents Association Show in June, LCA President Jon Campbell on Wednesday announced.

DeFrancisco, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, will be the most recent Senate Republican to give the GOP rebuttal at the annual gridiron show: Sen. Lee Zeldin (now a member of Congress) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos have both given it in recent years.

Newly elected Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie will deliver this year’s Democratic rebuttal.

The LCA Show will be held June 9 at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.

Senate Bill Would Exempt Top Districts From Evaluations

From the Morning Memo:

A bill backed by Republican Sen. Jack Martins would exempt the state’s top performing school districts from the newly approved teacher evaluation criteria.

Under the bill, introduced late last week, the top 20 percent of the state’s highest performing school districts would be allowed to submit their current evaluation plans along with a request for a waiver to the Department of Education.

The top 10 percent of the districts would be granted a waiver from the evaluation law. For school districts in the highest 11 percent to 20 percent category that do not receive waiver, the state education commissioner must release a statement in writing explaining the rationale for the rejection within 30 days.

The measure comes after the state budget included a new evaluation criteria that includes both one state test and an in-classroom observation. A second test can be added based on collective bargaining at the local level.

The Department of Education will determine the weight to give tests versus observation.

The bill is actually a re-introduction of a 2012 measure that has passed the Senate at the time.

It’s being revived after some districts, especially top performing ones, have expressed concern that the evaluation measure could hurt top performing teachers, considering the room for improvement is difficult hurdle to clear.

Having top performing districts be exempt from the law has already been floated by Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch — an idea that was roundly rejected by the New York State United Teachers, the umbrella group representing teachers unions.

“This is yet another example showing why the governor’s toxic education plan is top down and unworkable. Instead of doing everything possible to recruit, support and keep great teachers for students burdened by poverty, he’s boxing them in with test and punish,” NYSUT President Karen Magee said at the time.

The measure also comes as school districts across the state on Tuesday reported high numbers of students choosing to opt out of the current round of English Language Arts standardized tests that will run for the next two weeks.

NYSUT and their associated groups have supported the movement to have students opt out of the tests in order to dilute the impact on evaluations.

Senate Dems: Ready For Terry?

From the Morning Memo:

Last year, Democratic Sen. Terry Gipson was one of a trio of upstate incumbents to lose his seat in the chamber in an election-year rout that helped give the Republicans a full majority in the state Senate.

Now, Senate Democrats are looking ahead to 2016 and a potential Gipson comeback for the Hudson Valley seat he lost to Republican Sue Serino last fall.

At the 14th Annual Anna Buchholz Citizen of the Year Award by the town of Poughkeepsie Democratic Committee last week, Democratic Sen. George Latimer feted Gipson at a citizen of the year award ceremony in a sign the party wants the one-term lawmaker to take another shot at the Senate.

“People are going to want Terry Gipson in 2016, not phony choices,” Latimer told the crowd.

And in a shot at Serino, Latimer praised Gipson’s independence.

“That’s why you need Terry Gipson sitting on the Senate floor, not someone who is going to do what she is told,” he said.

Democrats will likely be helped across the board in 2016, a presidential election year that will likely draw out more Democratic voters than last year.

Still, Gipson won his seat in 2012 in part due to a crowded field that included incumbent Republican Sen. Stephen Saland and Conservative Party candidate Neil DiCarlo.

What Do Senate Republicans Want?

Senate Republicans will return to Albany later this month in the catbird seat as a range of issues important to Democratic lawmakers are due to expire in June, including mayoral control of New York City schools and laws governing rent control.

The majority conference in the chamber, for the most part, got what they wanted in the 2015-16 state budget agreement.

The cuts for school districts in the Gap Elimination Adjustment were closed by 50 percent, with the proviso the rest would be taken care of next year — a key campaign pledge for the conference during last year’s elections

“That was our overarching goal,” Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan said last week. “We came to a compromise as we always do.”

Consider, too, that the block of the Senate’s nine-member Long Island delegation won a $400 million infusion of state economic development funds.

Then there is what Republicans were able to get out of the budget talks.

The DREAM Act was not made law. A minimum wage increase was avoided. Disclosure of outside legal clients was pushed to a prospective basis following extended negotiations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Asked last week about his own priorities in the post-budget session, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos named the education investment tax credit, which had been tied to the DREAM Act in the state budget.

“One of my priorities is the education tax credit, which will be brought up in the post-budget session,” Skelos said, “As will mayoral control, as will rent. A lot of other issues will be brought up.”

The investment tax credit, which is aimed at encouraging donations to public schools and non-profit scholarship programs for private schools, remains a heavy lift for Assembly Democrats, who already trying to calm the statewide teachers union for approving a variety of Cuomo’s education reform proposals.

Senate Republicans may also want to win a version of their property-tax rebate proposal, which at one point was going to be linked to a minimum wage increase or the DREAM Act.

Nevertheless, Senate Republicans got their victories in the state budget process and have little incentive to roll over now on helping their political nemesis, Mayor Bill de Blasio, win a lengthy or permanent extension of mayoral control.

Already, mayoral control for city schools may be tied to a lifting of the cap on charter schools.

They have shown zero willingness to make agreements on the DREAM Act, which provides tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants and was a campaign issue that seized upon last year.

Senate Republicans still must work with Assembly Democrats on the issue of rent control, given that it is ultimately tied to the state’s cap on property tax increases.

But a variety of Democratic goals, including criminal justice reforms that were pushed in the aftermath of the Eric Garner grand jury decision, could prove difficult to get through the Senate.

In short, Senate Republicans are in an enviable situation: They have a number of leverage points to take advantage of, and few issues they need to get done politically or governmentally this June.