State Senate

IDC Releases 2017 Agenda

The Independent Democratic Conference this week unveiled its 2017 agenda that bores down on key issues ranging from protecting immigrants, boosting education aid, homeownership, child care and and protections for workers.

The plan proposed this week includes expanding property tax exemptions for elderly and disabled homeowners. The plan would also increase the wages of home health aides over the next six years so their pay is above the statewide minimum wage.

And IDC is backing calls for juvenile justice reform, spending more on Foundation Aid for education and provide legal assistance for immigrants.

The agenda comes as the IDC is renewing its alignment with Senate Republicans, who are retaining a razor-thin majority in the chamber.

Though mainline Democrats remain disappointed the IDC is sticking in a coalition with the GOP conference, IDC Leader Jeff Klein of the Bronx has touted his conference’s ability to deliver on their major issues.

“New Yorkers want real results and solutions to their everyday concerns,” Klein said in a statement. “The IDC is going to make a positive change for New York’s working- and middle-class families who struggle to send their children to college through our College Affordability for All plan, make sure our teenagers are treated as such by Raising the Age of criminal responsibility and create good-paying jobs through our Made by New Yorkers vision.”

Meanwhile, the IDC is also backing key issues being championed this week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including an expansion of the Tuition Assistance Program by raising the eligibility cap from $80,000 to $200,000.

The conference also is supportive of a plan that would provide tax incentives to businesses that provide child care to their workers.

The IDC this year has grown from five members to seven, with the addition of Sens. Jesse Hamilton and Marisol Alcantara, now giving them one lawmaker representing each of the five boroughs of New York City.

“The IDC has always changed New York for the better. After finally closing the Gap Elimination Adjustment last year, this session we will work towards accelerating the implementation of foundation aid to fairly fund our schools,” said Sen. David Valesky, the conference’s deputy leader and a Syracuse lawmaker. “Our visionary agenda also seeks to bring good-paying jobs upstate through the Made by New Yorkers program to keep manufacturing jobs here and showcase products made in this state.”

Stewart-Cousins: Cuomo’s Proposals Mirror Senate Dem Agenda

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement Thursday credited her conference with previously championing the agenda Gov. Andrew Cuomo has so far unveiled this week.

Cuomo this week has proposed a plan to provide free tuition to SUNY schools to qualifying income earners, revamp JFK Airport and, today, announced a plan to double the child care tax credit for those who earn between $50,000 and $125,000 a year.

In a statement, Stewart-Cousins noted the child care tax proposal has been opposed in the past the Senate Republicans, linking the need to pass the measure to a unifying Democrats in the chamber — a fight Cuomo bowed out of last month.

“So far the first three proposals of the Governor’s State of the State have mirrored proposals long supported and put forth by the Democratic Conference,” she said. “Today’s affordable child care proposal is similar to a plan first put forward by Senator Squadron and the Democratic Policy Group. This innovative proposal was blocked by the Senate Majority. The Senate Democrats have led the fight to help struggling New York families and reduce child care costs. With every passing day it is clear why we need all Democrats to unite and form a majority.”

Flanagan Considers More Oversight For Economic Development Councils

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long touted his relationship with Republicans in the state Senate, pointing to the bipartisan successes in Albany as being in stark contrast with the dysfunction of Washington.

Republicans, in turn, have come under criticism from conservatives for what they have seen as acquiescence on key issues like gun control and minimum wage.

But this year, Republicans seem less inclined to help Cuomo, as the relationship slides toward antagonism.

And Majority Leader John Flanagan indicated the conference is champing at the bit to take a more arched approach to Cuomo, starting with Cuomo’s pet economic development program: The Regional Economic Development Council.

“I think there’s questions that should be rightly asked about the councils, their independence, what type of disclosure they should have to do,” Flanagan told reporters on Wednesday at the Capitol. “Let’s be clear: There are existing laws that allow for these things to take place right now,” he said. “I guarantee you this, whatever is done will be done legally and in the full discourse publicly.”

The councils consist of business and higher education officials as well as state lawmakers and have been tasked with developing economic development strategies for a region. Those plans are submitted to the Empire State Development Corp., which through Cuomo announces how much those proposals will be funded.

While the councils have seemingly given the executive branch of government more authority and discretion over economic development spending, Flanagan insisted the appetite for oversight isn’t a switch in his approach.

“I think we’ve been acting that way,” he said. “I’m making it clear. If you’re doing things through executive orders, acting outside of the Legislature, taking an action we don’t always agree with, we have an obligation to ask questions.”

Resentments still linger between the governor and the Senate GOP, with Cuomo’s office blaming the Republicans for failing to marshal the needed votes to pass legislation that could have been considered in a special session of the Legislature.

Senate Dems Blast Rules Change Restricting Cell Phone Use

The 2017 legislative session in the state Senate kicked off on an acrimonious note Wednesday with Democrats blasting a “Trump-style” change in the rules that bans the use of cellphones from recording video or taking photos.

The Senate had been previously more restrictive on cell phone usage than the Assembly, citing concerns over space. Television cameras, which have become increasingly smaller in size, are banned from being used in the anteroom, Senate chamber and lobby while the chamber is in session.

The rules changes expand the restrictions on cell phones to banning photographs, videos or “perform any other recording function” in the Senate, galleries or lobbies unless by the “official Senate photographers and videographers” without permission from the Senate secretary.

“The Senate GOP are following their national colleagues and enacting Trump-style censorship and a direct attack on the free press,” said Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy. “Under the Republicans, the State Senate has repeatedly rushed important votes through in the middle of the night, away from public scrutiny. This new rule will continue the GOP pattern of avoiding transparency and concealing their actions from New Yorkers. The people have a right to know what is happening in their Senate Chamber.”

Senate Report Backs Clean Water Bond Measure, Water Institute

A 25-page report released Tuesday by the state Senate backed more funding for clean water programs as well as new state borrowing to enhance rural water infrastructure.

The report released by the Senate Health and Senate Environmental Conservation committees, comes more than a year after state officials responded to cases of chemical contamination of water in rural communities like Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh — the result of the area’s industrial past.

The report also examined cases of water contamination in Newburgh and on Long Island which have also drawn scrutiny.

The report and its recommendations also come after the Republican-led Senate was criticized for being slow to hold hearings on the water quality issues in Hoosick Falls after being prodded by residents and members of the Assembly GOP conference.

Lawmakers endorsed more funding for clean water programs by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his budget proposal as well as an extension of the state Superfund program.

No dollar amount was endorsed by the report, however.

At the same time, report did not recommend how much money should borrowed through a proposed Clean Water Bond Act, which would likely have to be approved by voters in a referendum.

The bond proposal was cast as a way of helping local governments, especially rural communities, save money.

“These funds could be available for implementation of new filtration systems, water testing, and other measures for areas that suspect or know they have a contamination issue and have not yet received the Superfund status that would make them eligible for such state funding,” according to the report.

Meanwhile, the governor’s own formation of a rapid response team to handle water quality issues when they arise was called “a start” but the report embraced a independent entity to oversee water quality issues based on a similar agency in New Jersey.

The report envisioned the entity as being “composed of public health experts, scientists, water purveyors and the Commissioners of the DEC and the DOH.

“Pulling together these experts to focus solely on the state’s drinking water quality issues is a common sense approach to moving the state forward and ensure we make sound, informed decisions regarding drinking water quality.”

Senate 2017 Report on Water Quality and Contamination by Nick Reisman on Scribd

Stewart-Cousins: Free College? Senate Dems Want That

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is using Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s free college tuition plan as yet another example of how much more the governor might be able to accomplish if only his fellow Democrats controlled the upper house.

“Senate Democrats have led the fight to make a quality higher education affordable to all New York students, and our Higher Education Ranking Member Senator Toby Stavisky has carried a bill to accomplish just this goal,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “This is perfect example of why the Democrats that comprise a majority of the Senate should unite. It is clear that initiatives like this would pass in a Democratic Majority.”

Stavisky’s legislation has been kicking around since at least 2013. The Senate Democrats, Stewart-Cousins noted, just this past May authored a white paper on college affordability (or the lack thereof), which was also a big deal in the 2016 presidential race – hence, Cuomo’s appearance today with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made free tuition a cornerstone of his campaign.

The Senate Republicans haven’t said anything about the free tuition plan yet, but the Legislature would need to approve it, and – notably – the administration has yet to say specifically how it plans to pay for it.

As Cuomo increasingly seeks to position himself at the national level, potentially with an eye on a future White House run, by embracing a host of liberal policy proposals, look for the Senate Democrats and their allies to keep up the “we could accomplish so much more together” drumbeat, even though at this point it’s pretty much a done deal that the Republicans and the IDC have renewed their power-sharing relationship.

The college tuition proposal is the first of what will likely be a string of pre-State of the State policy announcements leading up to the governor’s regional speeches next week. Cuomo today provided an on-line registration portal for members of the public who might like to attend those speeches, revealing the dates and general locations where they will be delivered, but not specific times or locales.

Cuomo wasted no time in starting to drum up public support for this proposal, sending out an email touting this “first-in-the-nation” plan and how it is an effort to build on his administration’s efforts over the past six years to “ease the burden on middle class families throughout New York.”

“From cutting property taxes to alleviating student loan debt, we’re continually striving to improve lives and increase economic opportunity for middle class New Yorkers,” Cuomo wrote. “This year, we’re taking another big step toward that goal: Today, alongside Senator Bernie Sanders, I unveiled a plan to offer free tuition at SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges. New York is the State of Opportunity and a college education must be accessible to all, not a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.”

There’s a link where email recipients are urged to show their support for the governor’s free tuition proposal – a handy way to collect supporters’ names for future contact (and perhaps fundraising appeals as the 2018 re-election campaign gears up).

Klein And Flanagan Announce Coalition

Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein will continue what has been a mutually beneficial partnership in the state Senate through coalition government in the chamber.

The announcement, released widely on Monday, was first reported this morning by The Daily News.

The continuation of the GOP-IDC partnership is not wholly surprising, though it follows a period of sustained public pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the IDC by allies of the mainline Democratic conference in the Senate to unify the party.

But Democratic unity in the Senate has been difficult to come by: Democrats failed to achieve a net gain of a seat in the chamber, despite hoping to run competitive races in suburban districts.

At the same time, Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat, plans to continue to conference with the Senate Republicans.

Mainline Democrats have sought to make the argument that Democratic unity in the Senate is nevertheless vital given GOP control of Congress and the presidency following the victory of Donald Trump in November.

Klein’s conference, first formed in 2011, continued to grow this year, now with seven members following the addition of Brooklyn Sen. Jesse Hamilton and incoming Sen. Marisol Alcantara, bringing the number of lawmakers in the IDC to seven.

Klein has pointed to IDC successes in the Senate, including minimum wage increases and a successful push for the creation of paid family leave.

“The Independent Democratic Conference is joining this majority coalition because, as pragmatic progressives, we know how important it is to engage and get things done,” Klein said. “This bipartisan coalition will represent every county across New York, ensuring that every New Yorker has a voice in the Senate.”

While Flanagan and the Senate Republicans maintain a razor-thin majority, they’ll likely need the backing of Klein’s IDC going forward should a vacancy arise.

“New Yorkers want Democrats and Republicans to work together to get results, and that’s exactly what we’ve done over the last 6 years in partnership with Senator Klein and members of the Independent Democratic Conference,” Flanagan said in a statement.

IDC Pushes Raise The Age

From the Morning Memo:

And speaking of criminal justice issues, the Independent Democratic Conference is reviving an issue that once again fell by the wayside in the 2016 legislative session: Raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York.

In a report released by the conference, the lawmakers point to the cost benefit of no longer imprisoning 16 and 17-year-old offenders.

“The impact that the current age of criminal responsibility has on 16- and 17-year-olds affects them for the rest of their lives. Whether it’s increasing the chance to advance academically or secure employment, it is clear that raising the age of responsibility will have a great societal benefit,” said Jeff Klein, the IDC leader.

“The report issued by the Independent Democratic Conference shows that in addition to this societal benefit the state will see a fiscal benefit as well. This legislative session we will work with advocates and stakeholders to find a legislative solution to this issue.”

The report released by the ID found the state could reach an annual savings of $117.1 million through the criminal justice reform based on the reduction of costs such as detention, transportation and court hearings as well as probation and parole.

The issue has been difficult to pass through the GOP-led Senate in the years since Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed changes based on a juvenile justice report he received.

Special Session Talks Collapse

What appeared to be the coming together of a post-Christmas special session devolved, appropriately enough on Festivus, into an airing of grievances.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan on Friday night officially pulled the plug on having his chamber return to Albany before the start of the new year, saying the package that had been under discussion was not enough to justify a reconvening of the Legislature.

“At the end of the day, however, there just isn’t enough in this package to justify convening a special session and bringing 213 legislators back to Albany before the end of the year,” he said in the statement.

The session, which could have been held as early as Tuesday, would have considered a variety of proposals, ranging from expanding ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft outside of New York City to funding for supportive housing and a hate crimes task force.

The session would likely also have paved the way for the first legislative pay increase since 1998. Lawmakers earn a base pay of $79,500, though many earn more through leadership stipends, and, of course, per diems.

While the Democratic-led Assembly had been considered especially eager to strike an agreement and trigger the salary increase through the re-authorization of a pay commission, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Senate had been relatively unenthused throughout this discussion.

“As Senate Majority Leader, I believe that the public deserves a Legislature that listens and is responsive to its concerns,” Flanagan said.

“While I believe many of the issues we have discussed have merit, some of the specific provisions have raised concerns that warrant further deliberation. We look forward to continuing those discussions when the Legislature is scheduled to return in January.”

Barring a re-opening of the talks, the collapse of a deal could have profound repercussions for the 2017 legislative session.

Word spread Friday evening of a potential deal that could have also included ethics-related measures such as more oversight of procurement procedures – a discussion sparked by the latest public corruption scandal that reached into the governor’s inner circle – and a public financing system for judicial campaigns.

But just as quickly as talk of a deal surfaced, so did oppositions to the proposals – and talk of recriminations from anonymous sources involved in the negotiations.

One source with direct knowledge of the talks groused that Flanagan could not deliver the votes in the GOP-controlled Senate for the session, due the closely-divided nature of his chamber.

The source added that “this was after weeks of negotiation in which he himself agreed to do the deal,” suggesting the legislative leadership and Gov. Andrew Cuomo were in agreement at one point, but rank-and-file lawmakers themselves could not be brought along.

A second source sympathetic to Flanagan, meanwhile, blamed Cuomo for the deal’s demise, saying the governor had the most to lose if a session is not ultimately held.

“He meddled with independent pay commission and nixed potential pay hike,” the source said, “now faces angry Legislature.”

Lawmakers Cautious On Ride-Hailing Timeline

From the Morning Memo:

With an aggressive lobbying effort, apparently strong public support and even the endorsement of the governor, you’d think a bill to legalize ride-hailing services in upstate would pass pretty quickly whenever legislators end up returning to Albany.

Maybe that’s not such a sure thing. Savvy lawmakers continue to say they’re hopeful legislation can be passed ASAP, but they refuse to venture a guess as to exactly when that will occur.

“I’m not going to make any predictions on that, but it’s very much on the minds of the governor as well as the legislators,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said.

State Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican, echoed the LG’s sentiment.

“One of the things I’ve learned early on is not to predict,” he said. “My hope is (ride-hailing will pass) early in the session. I am very much in favor of it as are many of my colleagues, especially upstate.”

At the moment, everything is in flux as legislative leaders and the governor try to hammer out a special session deal that may or may not include a measure to legalize ride hailing apps outside New York City. And in true Albany style, everything remains possible until it’s not anymore.

“Everything is in negotiation right now,” Hochul said. “There’s absolutely no finality to any part of it.”

The latest wrinkle is a proposal to add a surcharge for each ride, with the money generated going to support public transportation. Legislators have different opinions on where the money should go though, with some saying it should fund existing transit services, and others calling for it to be invested in much-needed infrastructure projects.

Ranzenhofer said he believes the potential revenue should go toward funding roads and bridges, but he doesn’t think this issue will be a deal-breaker. One thing the senator said he does know for sure is that his constituents are very keen on being able to use apps like Uber and Lyft.

Earlier this month, he launched an online petition to measure public interest. On the first day alone, about 2,700 people signed, which Ranznehofer deemed “phenomenal.”