Upstate NY

Upstate Housing Fund May Wait For Next Budget

A fund aimed at establishing more affordable housing in the upstate region may have to wait for next year’s budget, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle said in an interview on Tuesday.

“We’ve had a lot of talk about it. Whether or not it gets through the process, I don’t know. It requires more dollars,” Morelle said. “Since we’re not doing the budget now, it’s a little harder to do.”

The $150 million fund came up as lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly discuss the fate of rent control regulations for New York City and the surrounding area as well as the 421a tax abatement, which Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for an expansion of affordable housing.

Both rent control and the abatement lapsed at midnight, and lawmakers at the Capitol on Tuesday continued to negotiate both measures.

Even if the upstate housing fund falls out of the end-of-session talks and waits for the next fiscal year, Morelle said the issue of upstate housing is on the radar.

“But it’s something that a lot of the members upstate, myself included, a very interested in,” he said. “So whether it happens now or it happens in the budget, I think there’s a much greater focus on the needs of upstate housing.”

Lawmakers are due to leave the Capitol for the rest of the year on Wednesday, though Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will keep lawmakers in Albany should an agreement not be reached on rent control.

It’s unclear how long the session may extend into the rest of the week, Morelle said.

“We’re going to stay here as long as need to resolve these issues, but I feel confident we’re going to get it done by the end of the week,” he said.

Western New York Conservatives Angered Over Flanagan Selection

Despite the fact the newly minted Senate Majority Leader’s son goes to the University at Buffalo, John Flanagan hasn’t exactly gotten a warm reaction from Western New York so far.  Senate Democrats, as you would expect, are less than enthused about the choice, while Conservatives are downright livid.

“Nothing good is going to happen for Upstate New York with this change,” said Buffalo-Area State Assemblyman David DiPietro.

DiPietro, a gun rights advocate, said Flanagan’s vote in favor of the SAFE Act alone should have disqualified him as a candidate for Senate Majority Leader.

“Totally upset that we’re going to get no movement from our own Republican Senate because the leader is pro-SAFE Act,” DiPiertro said.

The member of the Assembly with the most conservative voting record, Rochester-area Assemblyman Bill Nojay directed his ire at the reported five Upstate GOP Senators who voted for Flanagan over Syracuse-Area Senator John De Francisco.  Nojay took to Twitter to vent his frustrations.

“Q (question) for the 5 Upstate GOPers who voted for Flanagan: what price to sell your soul?  Biggest winner today in Senate: Andrew Cuomo. He got a RINO he can control.  Biggest loser: Upstate NY, which is now politically irrelevant,” Nojay wrote.

The vote for Senate Majority Leader happened behind closed doors but most Western New York Republicans told us they supported DeFrancisco, including Michael Ranzenhofer, Rich Funke, Robert Ortt and Joe Robach.

Ranzenhofer confirmed the SAFE Act was a part of the closed door conversation. Ortt, an Afghanistan War Veteran and consistent advocate for repealing the controversial gun control measure, seemed optimistic Flanagan will move to the right on the issue.

“I think Senator Flanagan knows he’s going to have to work toward that (repealing the SAFE Act) to be successful as a leader and I think he’s going to do that and I’m willing to work with him on that issue,” said Ortt.

“John Flanagan voted for the SAFE Act. The people from his district knew it and voted to send him back to Albany.  I think he respects the Second Amendment.  I don’t see it as an issue,” Robach added.

Watching from outside the GOP conference, Senate Democrats in WNY saw the move as a lifeline for Skelos to hold on to some kind of power.  Buffalo-Area Senator Marc Panepinto even suggested Skelos “extorted” his own conference.

“Dean Skelos threatened his colleagues on Friday and said if you don’t do John Flanagan I may resign my seat and that may put the leadership up for grabs,” Panepinto said.

Still, it’s the way Flanagan ascended to Majority Leader that bothers conservatives as much as the fact he’s there.  Several sources suggest it was two Upstate New Yorkers who sided with the “Long Island Nine” to tip the scales in Flanagan’s favor.

“It was Cathy Young and Mike Nozzolio who sold us out,” said Former GOP Gubernatorial Candidate and outspoken Skelos critic Carl Paladino.  “The votes are here (Upstate) and this is where the Majority Leader should come from.”

Senator Young did not reveal how she voted behind closed doors.  In a statement Monday night she would only say:

“Every single member of the Republican Conference united behind Senator John Flanagan to ensure balance in state government and safeguard the future of the state.”

Senator Mike Nozzoilo’s office said he was not available for comment Monday night.

“Senator’s Young and Nozzolio sold their soul,” DiPietro said.  “If one of them would have voted against him (Flanagan) we could have had a different leader.  I’ll tell you up here in the Assembly right now we’re just beside ourselves.  We feel like we’ve been sold down the river,” DiPietro added.



Strength In Numbers

ICYMI from the Morning Memo today:

Upstate Democrats’ numbers have been steadily increasing in the Assembly majority conference, but they remain outnumbered by the downstate members, who continue to control much of the agenda in the Legislature’s lower house.

Case in point: The downstaters and Democratic party leaders in the five boroughs recently used their clout to select a new speaker, Carl Heastie, who hails from the Bronx, over Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, a Rochester Democrat.

A handful of upstate members have realized they’re likely to have better luck at seeing results on their priorities, which often differ from those of their more liberal downstate counterparts, if they band together – much like the black and Latino members have done by creating their own caucus.

Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, a Utica Democrat, says a small group of upstaters – maybe five or six who hail mostly from urban areas – started meeting last year to strategize about education funding.

This year, Brindisi said, the number has grown to about 15 or so members from several regions – including the Upper Hudson Valley, Capital District and Buffalo – who have met several times so far to discuss a wide range of topics. They’re currently holding their meetings in the office of Central NY Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli.

Brindisi was reluctant to call this loose coalition a formal “delegation,” noting the formation of such a group was frowned upon under the former speaker.

“Any time you had large groups of member meeting, it certainly was cause for concern,” Brindisi recalled. “We lost out on certain things because of that.”

But the new speaker, Carl Heastie, doesn’t seem to have a problem with the idea of Democratic conference members forming special interest groups.

In fact, several of these coalitions formed during the brief but intense fight for the speakership after Assemblyman Sheldon Silver’s corruption scandal cost him the post, and Heastie even met with some of them. (The newer members, the so-called “reform” caucus, etc.)

Brindisi said the upstaters have broadened their focus to include transit – “something we all agree could use more funding” – and addressing the needs of immigrant/refugee populations that have popped up in certain urban centers.

“We don’t want this to look like a downstate versus upstate effort; it’s not,” the assemblyman said. “It’s just that we have common issues – particularly in our urban areas – and we realized that when we work on the budget, it’s helpful for members to work together and advocate as one voice.”

Florida Surpasses New York In Population, Officially

Blame it on the taxes or blame it on the sunshine, but Florida has officially surpassed New York has the nation’s third most populous state, according to newly released Census data.

The move for Florida is not a surprise given its surging population over the last several decades, but its displacement of New York among the top three most populated states will no doubt give business groups renewed ammunition when it comes to the state’s tax and regulatory climate.

On the flip side, the trend of New Yorkers and residents of the northeast in general,is seen as inevitable by some after air conditioning came in to widespread usage, especially in the south.

U.S. Census data posted on Tuesday shows Florida leads New York by 147,070 people, with a total population of 19,893,297.

New York’s population, which has grown .26 percent, now stands at 19,746,227.

Florida is now behind the nation’s two largest states, California (38.8 million people) and Texas (26.9 million people).

Plan 2014 Coalition Pushes New Shoreline Regulations

From the Morning Memo:

The coalition of environmental advocates and elected officials that back changes to Lake Ontario shoreline regulations will reiterate their support for “Plan 2014″ in a news release later today.

The proposal, being billed as an update to the existing regulations, is aimed at managing the water levels on the great lake.

Supporters say that shifting to the new regulations will provide for a more natural water level and boost hydropower, but is opposed by elected officials who represent the southern shore of the lake.

The regulations must still be approved by the federal government, now under review by the Department of State.

Today the plan is getting a boost from Buffalo Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins.

“The Great Lakes represent one of our greatest natural resources providing extensive environmental benefits and economic opportunities,” said Higgins who is a member of the Congressional Great Lakes Task Force. “Plan 2014 builds on existing efforts to restore, protect and enhance Great Lakes water and the communities that surround them.”

The proposal also has the backing of two North Country officials: Democratic Rep. Bill Owens and the Republican who is replacing him in Congress, Elise Stefanik.

“Plan 2014 is a pragmatic solution for the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario,” Owens said. “It balances the environment and the economy, and is based in hard science. It’s time to implement Plan 2014 and prevent the irreparable damage that will occur if we don’t act.”

The Plan 2014 campaign is primarily being organized by the Nature Conservancy in favor of the new regulations.

The move is opposed by Republican Rep. Chris Collins, who believes the new water levels will harm residents who live Orleans, Wayne and Niagara counties, with concerns centering around damaging shorelines and existing fortifications.

Cuomo Seeks Federal Disaster Declaration for 9 WNY Counties

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today that he is asking the Obama administration to issue a major disaster declaration for nine Western New York counties that sustained significant damage during last month’s snowstorm and subsequent flooding.

The counties – Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Jefferson, Lewis, Orleans, St. Lawrence and Wyoming – together had more than $46.6 million in response costs and infrastructure damage verified as a result of the storm that rocked the region from Nov. 18-26, dumping just over seven feet of snow in some areas.

According to the governor, the highest snow accumulation of 88 inches was reported in Cowlesville, Wyoming County. Several locations in Erie County exceeded 50 inches, with Cheektowaga recording 65 inches of snow and Hamburg recording 79.8 inches. Snow fall rates from this storm were as much as six inches per hour in the Buffalo area.

Cuomo noted that a disaster declaration is the next step toward getting financial assistance from the federal government, which requires a $27.3 million damage threshold to qualify for aid.

“Once again, extreme weather came to New York and once again New Yorkers came together to help our neighbors in their time of need,” Cuomo said in a press release, (issued smack in the middle of the regional economic development council awards ceremony).

“The state, working with communities from every corner of New York, mobilized an unprecedented response to the storm that struck Western New York and the North County. As we continue the recovery process, federal assistance is critical to helping these communities and their residents move beyond this storm and prepare for the rest of the upcoming winter season.”

The governor said that a total of 14 fatalities and six injuries were attributed to the storm, and more than 370 roofs were damaged and 38 structures completely destroyed due to the weight of the considerable snow accumulation. In rural communities, barn collapses killed and injured livestock, including cattle and horses, and dairy farmers were forced to dump more than 250,000 pounds of milk.

Damages to the agricultural industry alone are estimated at more than $15 million, Cuomo said.

The governor requested technical assistance in the form of a joint State-FEMA Preliminary Damage Assessment, which was initiated Dec. 1. The results of that assessment validated state and county expenditures on storm response and recovery. In the wake of the storm, Cuomo said a number of smaller communities wiped out their entire snow removal budgets for the year just responding to this single event.

Additionally, Cuomo said he has requested a Physical Disaster Declaration from the Small Business Administration for low interest loans. Eligible applicants could receive homeowner physical disaster home loans (homeowners and renters), physical disaster business loans (businesses and non-profits), and economic injury business loans for small businesses.

Wiesner, Again, Facing Bid Rigging Indictment from Grand Jury

Robert Wiesner, husband of Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, has once again been indicted on bid rigging charges relating to the county’s local development corporations.

Wiesner was one of four men indicted last fall on a 25 count indictment including charges for bid rigging and money laundering involving Upstate Telecommunications Corporation.

One charge was eventually dropped against Wiesner in August of this year, but the judge said at the time he would allow prosecutors to present evidence to a new grand jury on another charge.

Wiesner’s attorney, James Nobles, had argued to have both charges dropped because Wiesner did not have the chance to testify before the first grand jury.

But in a written decision, the judge said the charge relating to bid-rigging can go back to a grand jury.

That brings us to today.

Wiesner is again facing bid-rigging charges related to a multi-hundred million dollar county project to upgrade certain emergency communication systems.

According to the Attorney General’s office, the indictment reads:

The Grand Jury of the County of Monroe, by this Indictment, accuses the defendant of the crime of COMBINATION IN RESTRAINT OF TRADE AND COMPETITION, in violation of General Business Law Sections 340 and 341, committed as follows:

The defendant, from in or around March 2008 to in or around October 2013, in the County of Monroe, acting in concert with others known and unknown to the Grand Jury, knowingly and intentionally entered into and engaged in and continued to engage in a contract, agreement, arrangement, and combination in unreasonable restraint of combination and the free exercise of activity in the conduct of business, trade, and commerce, specifically, to restrain competition in the bidding process of Monroe County for the Public Safety Contract, by means of bid rigging.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a statement today on the indictment, saying:

“I welcome the grand jury’s decision to re-indict Robert Wiesner on a felony charge stemming from the joint investigation my office conducted with Comptroller DiNapoli into allegations of bid rigging in Monroe County. We look forward to bringing this matter to trial.”

Pressuring Cuomo on Panepinto

Western New York Democrats today presented an unusually united front in support of Marc Panepinto, the Democratic candidate in the four-way race for the seat currently occupied by Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti.

Though they were on opposite sides of the Sept. 9 primary battle between Sen. Tim Kennedy and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, and also divided over a subsequent fight for the county Democratic Party chairmanship, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, Rep. Brian Higgins, and Kennedy have all lined up behind Panepinto, who, thanks to Grisanti’s loss in the GOP primary to Kevin Stocker, has become a top priority for the Senate Democrats as they look to take control of the chamber.

The WNY Democrats announced their support of Panepinto at a “unity” rally that took place at his campaign headquarters. In a statement released by Panepinto’s campaign, Poloncarz called the candidate “a friend”, while Brown, who once held the Senate set Panepinto is now seeking, said he is “the type of person we need more of in Albany.”

Higgins called Panepinto “issued-oriented” and some who “sees problems and isn’t afraid to work to fix them.” Kennedy said his fellow Democrat “is the partner I need in the state Senate to continue the tremendous progress and momentum we have seen in Buffalo and Western New York.”

The fact that these Democrats were able to get on the same page about something is news. But there’s also an added twist: These endorsements send a clear message to the most powerful Democrat in the state – Gov. Andrew Cuomo – that the party is uniting behind Panepinto, and he should, too.

Cuomo, as you’ll recall, has not ruled out the possibility of endorsing Grisanti – the last member of the quartet of Republicans who voted “yes” on same-sex marriage who is still in the Senate. But endorsing Grisanti would jeopardize Cuomo’s pledge as part of the WFP endorsement deal to support a Democratic takeover of the chamber.

Also present at today’s unity rally was Bill Samuels, the Democratic activist who has been pressuring Cuomo on a number of fronts – especially when it comes to making good on his promise to help his fellow Democrats take the Senate majority. Samuels said it would be “political malpractice” for Cuomo and his running mate, former WNY Rep. Kathy Hochul, not to endorse Panepinto.

“If Cuomo and Hochul don’t endorse Panepinto, Senate Democrats will lose the chance to enact real campaign finance reform, a real minimum wage, and a real DREAM Act,” Samuels said. “They need to honor their commitment to Senate Democrats and to the progressive agenda they claim to support. They should do everything in their power to help Panepinto win and to help Senate Democrats win in November.”

“…Cuomo and Hochul should not cynically use Grisanti’s vote in favor of marriage equality as a way to keep Republicans in control. They should immediately endorse Panepinto. If they are real Democrats, they will deliver for Panepinto,” Samuels continued.

“Had Cuomo made an effort in 2010 to put Senate Democrats back in power, marriage equality could have passed the state Senate without Grisanti’s support. Grisanti voted the right way on marriage equality and deserves praise for his vote, but his vote doesn’t give Cuomo the right to break a pledge to help Democrats regain control of the State Senate this year.”

Samuels recently called on Cuomo to transfer $10 million from his overflowing campaign coffers to the Senate Democrats’ to help fund their political efforts this fall. Part of the WFP endorsement deal reportedly included creation of a $10 million fund to bolster the DSCC’s meager funds. Though NYC Nayor Bill de Blasio, who brokered the agreement between the labor-backed party and Cuomo, is helping raise money for the Senate Democrats, Cuomo has yet to do so.

Dem Meddles In GOP SD-60 Primary (Updated)

Also from today’s Morning Memo:

Democratic state Senate candidate Marc Panepinto apparently has a strong preference as to which Republican he’ll face in the November general election should he triumph in his own primary battle tomorrow.

Panepinto feels so strongly, in fact, that he’s willing to spend some of his own campaign cash – not to boost his candidacy – but in an attempt to influence the outcome of the GOP Senate primary in which Sen. Mark Grisanti faces a second challenge from Kenmore attorney Kevin Stocker.

(Grisanti defeated Stocker, 60-40, in the 2012 primary after his controversial “yes” vote on same-sex marriage. He is now the only one of four GOP senators who voted “yes” still in the chamber).

A TV ad that recently started running on WNY airways (including TWC Cable News) casts Grisanti as a party-flipping moderate who can’t be trusted.

Here’s the script:

“Mark Grisanti was a Democrat, until he wasn’t. Grisanti opposed restrictions on the Second Amendment, until he didn’t. Grisanti supported restricting special interest money, until he took it. Grisanti claims he stood with the community, until he chose to defend a West Side drug kingpin against the community. Mark Grisanti, you just can’t trust him.”

A tiny disclaimer that appears at the bottom of the screen just as the ad is ending reveals it was paid for by Panepinto’s campaign.

Attempts to reach a Panepinto spokesperson by phone and email last night were unsuccessful. UPDATE: Panepinto’s campaign today sent me a statement that insisted the ad(s?) have “nothing to do with the Republican primary, adding:

“Looking ahead to the general election, the fact is Mark Grisanti can’t be trusted and puts his needs ahead of those of the constituents of the 60th Senate District. On the other hand, Marc Panepinto has stood with the same party and consistently fought for working and middle class families for his entire life. Voters in the 60th Senate District are fed up with elected officials whose values, platform and party affiliation change each election cycle and that is why Mark Grisanti is wrong for this district and Western New York.”

This highly unusual approach by Panepinto is part of what appears to be an organized campaign by key Democrats and their allies to meddle in the GOP primary.

The Buffalo News recently reported that the political arm of NYSUT, which has endorsed Panepinto in his primary battle with former Buffalo Councilman and state Senator Al Coppola, has been running attack ads and sending out mailers that depict Grisanti as not sufficiently conservative to represent the 60th Senate District.

The left-leaning statewide teachers union is not generally viewed as a protector of conservative values.

Insiders believe the union is hoping to soften up Grisanti to enable a victory by Stocker, whom NYSUT apparently assumes would be easier for its candidate, Panepinto, to beat in November.

Stocker told the Buffalo News he has nothing to do with NYSUT’s anti-Grisanti campaign, and believes he’ll defeat both the senator (in tomorrow’s primary) and Panepinto (in November, assuming he wins tomorrow’s primary) on his own steam.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Stocker has irked local GOP leaders with his write-in campaign for the ultra-liberal Working Families Party line. The WFP has endorsed Panepinto.

The local party officials and the Senate GOP are supporting Grisanti’s re-election – a key win if the Republicans want to take back the majority.

A Buffalo Democratic insider suggested the nexus between the Panepinto and Stocker campaigns could be former Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Pigeon. In 2010, Pigeon assisted Stocker with his failed campaign against Democratic Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, according to this source. And this year, Pigeon is an unpaid and unofficial advisor to Panepinto.

Pigeon did not return an email seeking comment.

Panepinto also briefly considered challenging Grisanti back in 2012. His candidacy has been married by his guilty plea to a misdemeanor violation of state election law for gathering phony petition signatures.

Panepinto called that incident a “lapse in judgment…that did not impede by legal career in any way.” Panepinto was also a candidate for Erie County Democratic chairman in 2012 before bowing out. That post is now held by Jeremy Zellner.

To call Zellner and Pigeon political enemies would be something of an understatement.

Zellner is running for re-election for the chairmanship this year. Insiders suspect all the subterfuge surrounding the campaigns of Panepinto and Stocker – not to mention the Democratic primary battle between Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant and Sen. Tim Kennedy – might actually have something to do with that race.

Given the notoriously tangled web of WNY politics, I’m sure there’s much more to this story that remains under the radar. Feel free to drop a line if you’ve got any additional information and/or insight.

Addendum: Zellner will get a boost this afternoon from a GOTV really being held in Orchard Park for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his running mate (and WNY native), former Rep. Kathy Hochul. Kellner’s expected attendance may signal a thaw between himself and the governor, according to Bob McCarthy, or, at the very least, a temporary detente.

Bill de Blasio, Boogeyman

From today’s Morning Memo:

If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.

Even as they question whether the deal struck by their erstwhile power-sharing partner, IDC Leader Jeff Klein, with his former Democratic colleagues will stick, the Senate Republicans are seeking to turn Klein’s abandonment to their political advantage.

GOP senators – especially those who represent districts north and west of Albany – are warning that upstate will be forgotten if the downstate-dominated Democratic conference takes full control of the chamber.

And they’re playing up the fact that uber-liberal NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is leading the charge to flip the Senate into Democratic hands, with Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos even going so far as to suggest that de Blasio will become the “de facto governor” of New York if Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.

That’s a comment clearly designed to get under the skin of the actual governor, Andrew Cuomo, who has had a rocky relationship with de Blasio since the mayor took office in January.

Skelos drove his point home by saying Cuomo was being “timid” and “sold out” to the labor-backed Working Families Party – a top de Blasio ally – when he agreed to assist his fellow Democrats in their push to take back the Senate in exchange for the WFP’s endorsement.

Sen. Tom Libous, the deputy leader of the Senate GOP, and Senate Finance Chairman John DeFrancisco, made similar comments in separate interviews yesterday.

(Interestingly, and perhaps a bit off-message, DeFrancisco also defended IDC member Dave Valesky, saying he doesn’t support Onondaga County GOP Chair Tom Dadey’s threat to challenge the Syracuse Democrat this fall in retaliation for the IDC’s defection).

The anti-de Blasio/downstate vs. upstate argument is apparently a coordinated message for the Senate Republicans, who, according to Capital NY, plan to run this fall against “ultra-liberal New York City radicals” who are working to empower “illegal immigrants” and stifle business.

I’m pretty sure a good number of upstaters have no idea who Bill de Blasio is, but the “we’re your last line of defense against the liberals in NYC” argument is one they’ve certainly heard before from the Senate GOP.

It remains to be seen whether that line of reasoning resonates this time around.