Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen is Capital Tonight's Western New York political reporter. He covers politics in Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Ryan was a general assignment reporter for Time Warner Cable News Buffalo for nearly five years and worked in several other markets before joining the Cap Tonight team in 2016.

Posts by Ryan Whalen

Erie County Executive Pours Cold Water On New Stadium Talk

From the Morning Memo:

The Buffalo Bills are following through on a promise to do an internal analysis regarding the possibility of a new stadium.

Many people in the WNY area received a survey that asked a number of questions – including one that inquired, in broad terms, that if the team were to build a new stadium would the preferred choice be downtown Buffalo or north, south east or west of the city?

The survey certainly seemed to excite fans and members of the local media. However, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has long warned people not to get ahead of themselves on the issue of a new stadium. And he’s not changing his tune yet.

“This is not surprising,” he said. “We expected this. This is what generally is done when you’ve got a stadium lease that is coming up. This happened the last time there was a stadium lease that was due.”

Poloncarz pointed out the county does its own analysis, as well. The current lease goes through 2022, and, he said, especially if a new stadium is a possibility, it’s important to get an early start.

“I can tell you just to negotiate the last lease, it took almost a full year in negotiations and then another four months, five months to finalize it in paper,” the county executive cautioned. “So if it took that long and we knew we weren’t going anywhere other than staying at the existing facility, it certainly is going to take much longer to determine what the long term plans are.”

The county executive also noted that there are very limited spaces where a new stadium could be built. Even if a spot is located, it could mean less parking, which would likely curtailed the much-covered Bills tailgating culture. He said nobody at this point has determined if a new facility is even appropriate.

Poloncarz maintains that the current stadium in Orchard Park can last another 20 years with some additional upgrades.

“It’s a determination that’s going to be made in the long-term, not just by the Buffalo Bills, but by my office and the governor’s office,” he said.

Finally, he pointed out, as new stadiums are being built around the NFL, the costs are not only-covered through state and local taxpayer money, but directly from the fans through personal seat licenses.

“If you expect this market to be able to pay the prices that they do in Dallas or Atlanta or Los Angeles, it’s not going to happen,” Poloncarz said. “This is Buffalo. We’re more like Kansas City. We’re more like Cleveland and you can’t expect that what they do in the larger markets is going to carry over here because truthfully people couldn’t afford to go to the games.”

Falls Leaders Happy About Casino Money, But Want To Be Careful Spending It

From the Morning Memo:

Leaders of the cash-strapped city of Niagara Falls welcomed the news that an arbitration panel had ruled in favor of the state in a long-running dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians over casino payments.

The Senecas hadn’t paid the state a portion of casino slot machine revenues for the better part of the last year. Among the three cities where the tribal casinos are located, the Falls is supposed to get the largest portion of that funding.

Without it, the city faced a major budget gap this year, and the state had even promised to provide an additional $12 million to cover it. Mayor Paul Dyster said that backup plan does not appear to be needed now, so long as the Nation makes overdue payments in a timely fashion.

The mayor said it was a good day, but cautioned the city has to become less reliant on casino funds with the current deal between the state and the Senecas running out at the end of 2023.

“We’re trying to deliver services and keep taxes down, and that’s a trade-off the administration and city council have to work out year by year in the budget process,” he said.

City Council Member Chris Voccio said by 2020, none of the Seneca money, which has been roughly $20 millionin recent years, should be part of the budget. Rather, he believes it should be invested in infrastructure and economic development – as many leaders argue was its originally intended purpose.

“If you drive down Pine Avenue, where we are now, or you drive up Niagara Street or drive up Main Street, and you look around, it’s hard to imagine that the city, over the last 15 years has received $250 million,” he said.

While it’s unclear at this point exactly how much Niagara Falls will get, the mayor said he’s expecting a lot of the money will move quickly from the coffers. Other stakeholders like Destination Niagara USA, the local tourism agency, are owed a portion of the funds once the city gets them.

Reed Continues Push To Designate Jamestown Comedy Center

From the Morning Memo:

Southern Tier Republican Rep. Tom Reed is renewing his effort to federally designate Jamestown’s National Comedy Center as THE National Comedy Center.

Reed, who is now in the minority in the House, re-introduced a bill in Congress that would recognize the museum as the only of its kind in the country. This measure passed the House last year, but did not get through the U.S. Senate before the end of session.

“We care about ensuring Jamestown is to comedy as Cooperstown is to baseball and Cleveland is to rock and roll,” Reed said. “We find it unfortunate our colleague in the Senate declined to give the National Comedy Center a fair shot at the recognition it deserves last year.”

The congressman helped connect the center with federal tax credits, and acted as a liaison to the Economic Development Agency to help secure funding. New York State also provided significant funding to the $50 million facility, which officially opened over the summer.

As Reed also pointed out in his press release, USA Today names the museum one of the Best New Attractions Of 2018. The winner of the contest will be announced January 18.

Kolb Sends Assembly Minority Priorities To Governor

From the Morning Memo:

The upcoming state legislative session is supposed to be all about the Democrats.

The left owns both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. However, that isn’t stopping Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb from trying to push forward his own priorities.

The Republican from the Finger Lakes region wrote a letter to the governor this week outlining significant changes in how the state does business that he believes should be considered.

“As we begin 2019, I think it’s absolutely critical the governor takes a long, hard look at some of the programs and policies championed by the Assembly minority conference,” Kolb said.

“Simply put, New Yorkers are paying too much and getting too little in return. In a few days we will, again, begin taking up bills and getting to the people’s business. We must work together toward a leaner, more effective budget and policies that deliver results for New Yorkers in every corner of our great state.”

Among Kolb’s long list of suggestions are some that – at least on their face – Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats have indicated they might actually share. For example, Kolb is advocating for a permanent property tax cap, improvements to infrastructure and funding to fight the ongoing opioid epidemic.

At the same time, the minority leader wants to see dramatic changes to New York’s economic development policy – something likely to meet more resistance, at least from the governor.

“Quite frankly, until Gov. Cuomo commits to developing sound economic policy instead of finger-pointing and pontificating about things he can’t control in Washington D.C., New Yorkers will continue to be denied opportunities for prosperity and will continue to look elsewhere,” Kolb said. “Let’s make 2019 the year New York gets back to where it belongs.”

He also echoed his past calls for all legislative leaders to be included in budget negotiations – something Andrea Stewart-Cousins also sought when she was minority leader.

Now that she’s majority leader, however, she has backed off that stance, saying the three person in a room meetings at which everything gets decided are held at the discretion of the governor, so he gets to decide who’s invited to attend.

Following Erie County’s Lead, Niagara County DA Won’t Prosecute SAFE Act Provision

The Niagara County District Attorney’s Office will no longer prosecute a portion of New York’s SAFE Act deemed unconstitutional in federal court.

The provision makes it illegal to knowingly possess an “ammunition-feeding device” that is loaded with more than seven rounds. Last month, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn made the same decision not to prosecute after becoming aware of the 2015 U.S. Court of Appeals opinion.

The Niagara County DA’s office said State Police initially stopped enforcing the provision but have since resumed.

“It was my understanding that the Niagara County Sheriff’s office and out other local law enforcement agencies had not been charging that provision since it was declared unconstitutional,” DA Caroline Wojtaszek said. “It is important that everyone in my county handle this matter uniformly. I find the federal court’s decision on this both useful and persuasive. I join my Erie County counterpart not to prosecute this ammunition provision. Any pending charges under this section will be dismissed.”

Wojtaszek said she spoke with local law enforcement and Flynn before coming to her conclusion.

Erie County Clerk Issues Warning To Expected New DMV Chief

From the Morning Memo:

The state Department of Motor Vehicles has been without a permanent commissioner for several years now, but that should soon come to an end.

A source confirmed reports that Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder is resigning his city post to run the DMV. Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns said the change can’t come soon enough.

“The one thing I do know about Mark is he will listen, and believe me, he will be hearing from me a lot because there are many things that need to change,” Kearns said. “There are many things that are broken at the state DMV. We haven’t had a leader there in a long time.”

In many ways, Kearns and Schroeder are cut from the same cloth. Both served the same South Buffalo Assembly district known for its “conservative Democratic” politics.

They also both have been known for sometimes bucking party leadership. Schroeder challenged Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in 2017, who also happens to be the state Democratic Party chairman, compliments of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

At the moment, it happens to be Kearns who is in worse standing with local Democrats, having run and won two recent races for clerk on the Republican line.

Similarities aside, Kearns said geography could be one of the most important things he and Schroeder have in common as his former colleague prepares to ascend to a new post.

“Obviously, if you have a commissioner that’s from Western New York, he is going to understand Upstate and Western New York and hopefully he won’t forget about us,” he said.

Despite all their history, it’s possible that the relationship between Schroeder and Kearns could quickly sour.

The county comptroller has been steadfast in his vow not to process drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, which is a top priority for a number of progressive advocacy groups as the Democrats prepare to take control of the entire state Legislature kin Albany.

Cuomo has already indicated his willingness to sign this legislation if it passes both houses, and he is also the one who would appoint the new DMV chief. Kearns said he doesn’t know Schroeder’s stance on the issue, but said if he plans to enforce any new driver’s license law, he’ll face a fight – and not just in Buffalo.

“He may be in for a tempest of a storm with the county clerks throughout the state of New York if that matter gets passed by the Legislature, and that’s something that I want to warn him on,” he said.

There’s history on this issue dating back to the days of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who had to retreat from his push to give undocumented immigrations driver’s licenses after a significant backlash against the proposal, which even tripped up then Sen. Hillary Clinton during her first presidential run.

And leading the charge against the idea at the time: Then Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, who, of course, is now Cuomo’s lieutenant governor. Back then, though, she vowed to have immigrants arrested if they showed up at her local office to apply for a license.

Schroeder has not made any official comment on this subject, and his office indicated he would not do so until Cuomo announced any appointment.

Cuomo: NY Didn’t Really Have A Choice About Whether To Legalize Marijuana

Legalizing the adult use of marijuana is one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s legislative priorities for the upcoming session.

The governor’s stance on legalization has evolved over the years and he put together a study and a commission to research it. However, during an interview in Buffalo Friday, he said the state didn’t really have a choice because neighboring states have either already legalized or are in the process of doing so.

“It is legal. You’ll just force people to drive to Massachusetts or drive to New Jersey and then come back into this state and use it in this state so the commission basically said you’re there already,” he said. “It’s a false choice.”

At this point, Cuomo said his office is working on the details of the bill. For instance, he said questions about how old people should be, how many stores can sell, and what the tax rate is, still need to be answered.

Once again, the laws of the neighboring states will come into play.

“With that, I want to make sure we are somewhat consistent with what Massachusetts is doing and what New Jersey is doing, because otherwise all you’ll do is be forcing people to one state or the other,” he said.

The governor said New York is having direct conversations with New Jersey as the two states craft their laws.

Governor Cautions Municipalities Not To Count On Seneca Casino Money For Budgets

A dispute over casino revenue sharing between New York State and the Seneca Nation of Indians is now in the hands of an arbitration panel.

Earlier this month both sides appeared in front of the three-member panel in New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said all arguments have been submitted on paper, as well.

“We’re waiting for an arbitrators decision and the sooner the better,” he said.

The conflict has been ongoing for nearly two years, with the Seneca Nation arguing the obligation to give the state a portion of slot machine profits has been fulfilled.

“It is very, very important that the Senecas restart their payments. Local governments are depending on that. That was the essence of the bargain that we reached initially. I believe they wrongfully stopped the payments. They believe they have a legal claim,” Cuomo said.

A portion of the money goes to the three cities where the casinos are: Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. The loss in revenue has caused budget issues for all three municipalities.

“The municipalities, I believe should be prudent, and wait for the situation to be settled before they count on money. Don’t count your chickens before their hatched. Don’t count your revenue until you know you’re going to receive it,” Cuomo said.

The timeline for a resolution is unclear at this point.

Cuomo Welcomes Vote On Pay Raises, Outside Income

If state legislators want to return to Albany to reject the recommendations of the state pay commission, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, said he welcomes it.

The governor has not changed his stance on the commission’s decision to raise salaries by $50,000, while limiting outside income to 15 percent of salaries and eliminating committee stipends known as lulus.

“I don’t believe legislators should make outside income,” he said. “I think that is an inherent conflict of interest. People get into trouble all the time for that.”

Cuomo said he understands that many legislators don’t share his support for the recommendation. He challenged those lawmakers to be forthcoming with their constituents though, whether it be in the media or by taking a vote.

At least GOP senators this week, have discussed coming back to the Capitol before the end of the year.

“They don’t need me to call a special session,” Cuomo said. “They can come back this afternoon. They can come back tomorrow. They don’t need me. They can come back and vote.”

The governor did not say whether he would sign legislation nullifying the commission’s recommendations, which become law on January 1st. Sources said, while many senators have indicated they’re open to a vote, it’s not clear if there would even be enough for a quorum. Assembly leadership has not indicated it has any interest in coming back.

GOP Senators Discuss Return To Reject Pay Raise Plan

From the Morning Memo:

Members of the state Senate could potentially return to Albany for one more vote before the end of the calendar year.

Two sources said there were discussions Thursday with members of the Republican conference, gauging whether there would be enough interest to vote Dec. 27 to reject the recent recommendations of the pay raise commission.

Earlier this month, the commission voted to give state legislators a $50,000 raise over the next several years while limiting outside income to 15 percent of the salary and eliminating committee stipends known as lulus.

Many legislators have complained that the commission members’ proposal was outside the panel’s legal purview, and a lawsuit has already commenced to challenge it. However, it is expected to become law unless legislators pass and the governor signs a bill nullifying the decision before Jan. 1.

So far, there’s been a lot of unhappy talk by lawmakers, but no real action. As a result, some GOP sources are questioning the point of returning on the “leader’s prerogative.”

One source said a “vocal minority” of senators are pushing to get their stance against the commission report on the record. Others, the source said, told current Majority Leader John Flanagan, they would return to the Capitol if asked.

Because Republican state Sen. Tom Croci, of Long Island, remains on active duty with the Navy Reserve, the conferences are essentially equally split with 31 votes apiece. Several other GOP legislators are lame ducks whose terms will be over at the end of the year. Democrats take control of the Senate next session.

The source said in order to even get a quorum, at least some Democrats would have to agree to return – something unlikely to happen unless the Assembly decides to come back as well. Flanagan told members of his conference talks between him and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie about the pay raises are ongoing.

As for why they are looking at next Thursday, it appears to be the most reasonable day between holidays for legislators to return if needed – provided they’re not celebrating outside the state.