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

Cuomo Seeks Compromise In License Plate Plan, Lawmakers Are Skeptical

From the Morning Memo:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to find a way out of the license plate replacement controversy, but state lawmakers are not buying into the compromise his administration proposed just yet.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers over the last week have shared similar questions about the administration’s plan to require motorists with license plates ten years or older to purchase new ones for $25.

Cuomo’s office on Thursday released a statement from Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder that floated a potential end to the controversy: Motorists with plates 10 years old or older could keep their plates pending an inspection to determine their condition.

Schroeder said the Cuomo administration was willing to work with lawmakers to develop the inspection plan before the replacement program begins next April.

But lawmakers were skeptical.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, a Democrat who represents Schenectady, knocked the proposal.

“It seems to me that NYS DMV Commissioner Schroeder missed the point. Drivers are not taking issue with replacing damaged plates but the governor’s program FORCES drivers to replace plates, regardless of condition,” he said.

The license plate plan over the several days has led to lawmakers criticizing the proposal as a “cash grab” that could net the state up to $75 million in the coming years.

GOP state Sen. Chris Jacobs said there is no reason anybody should have to pay to replace a plate that is in reasonable condition.

“We get buckled and dimed so much in this state and this is going to generate a lot of money for this state,” he said. “That’s why they’re doing this.”

The governor has stated the reason for the replacement plates is that the older generation does not register correctly with new cashless tolling technology, soon to be instituted across the Thruway system.

However, Democratic Assemblyman Sean Ryan said he has been doing his own research and found the technology already in place on the Grand Island bridges and the new Mario Cuomo Bridge seem to be functioning fine.

“I’m trying to figure that one out, but I haven’t heard any real research or information from the current people who run those cashless tolling programs if there’s an actual problem,” he said.

Jacobs is on the Senate Transportation Committee and called on its chair, fellow western New Yorker Tim Kennedy, to hold hearings about the issue. Republican Sen. Jim Tedisco of the Capital Region also wants hearings on the issue.

Kennedy said, in essence, that’s already planned.

“As always, the Senate and Assembly will hold joint hearings during the state budget process, which will allow for further examination of this proposal,” he said.

Kennedy said his committee will also review any legislation that seeks to address the issue.

Cuomo, meanwhile, has also lashed out at lawmakers, blaming them for the $25 fee set 10 years ago before he was governor. He’s challenged lawmakers to return to Albany for a special session and lower it themselves.

The measure approved in 2009 allows the DMV to set the fee that is “not to exceed” $25 — suggesting the DMV could simply lower the fee now without lawmaker input.

Vanity Fair Report Sparks Renewed Interest In OSC Audit

A Vanity Fair article about Tesla’s solar operation in Buffalo has again sparked interest in an Office of the State Comptroller audit into New York State’s high tech projects.

OSC confirmed the audit which several media outlets, including WIVB and the Times Union, have previously reported is ongoing and has been for several months.

“Because the audit is underway, we cannot provide any further details on the scope of the audit or our findings so far,” spokesperson Jennifer Freeman said.
The Comptroller’s Office did not specifically name Tesla but it would appear the review would touch several Buffalo Billion projects including the state’s $750 million investment in the RiverBend technology hub where the Tesla factory is located.
Thursday, in response to the Vanity Fair piece, Erie County Legislator and County Executive candidate Lynne Dixon asked the comptroller for a full audit of the program and plans to introduce a formal resolution. She said while the audit has been “rumored,” no details have been widely released.
“Taxpayers spent $750 million on SolarCity, helping build the plant and paying for the equipment, it was one of the largest ever commitments to a single project in the history of Western New York. We were given the promise and expectation of thousands of jobs and a generational boost to our local economy. To date we haven’t seen that, and we have seen no transparency or accountability from Tesla. They deflect, they blame and they continue to partake in a level of secrecy they don’t deserve considering the commitment from taxpayers to this project.  It’s time we start to get answers about what our money was spent on,” Dixon said.
The Republican-endorsed candidate also suggested Tesla open its doors to media, which it has only done once before and with many restrictions.

Stewart-Cousins And Langworthy Both Believe 2020 Holds Good News For Respective Parties

From the Morning Memo:

Not surprisingly Democrats and Republicans in New York have opposite opinions about their outlooks for the state Senate in 2020.

The Dems are making their case for growing the majority with several GOP incumbents exploring new opportunities. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins took it a step further Wednesday, with a forecast for the next election.

“We will begin next year with 40 members. My prediction is a minimum of 43,” she said.

However, new State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy noted earlier this week, his party lost the Senate in just one election. Even though they currently have an 18 seat deficit, he said he believes they could make it up in the same amount of time – one election.

Stewart-Cousin quickly dismissed the premise.

“He should say that,” she said. “He’s the chair.”

Langworthy has already started the campaign, pinpointing a number of 2020 campaign issues. That includes the passage of a law granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and most recently, the governor’s plan to mandate motorists with license plates ten years or older purchase new ones for $25.

“Coming out of that last session, there’s no way they should be re-elected as a majority,” Langworthy said Wednesday. “What they accomplished was completely irresponsible, shoved down the throats of New Yorkers at the expense of taxpayers.”

The Senate majority hasn’t officially weighed in on the license plate issue, but Langworthy said Cuomo is the leader of the party.

Reed’s Office Open To Helping State And Senecas Mediate Thruway Issues

Rep. Tom Reed, R-NY-23, said he will refer to the Department of Justice moving forward on a request he made for a federal investigation into Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, and his administration.

The congressman said he did have a positive first impression from U.S. Attorney J.P. Kennedy about how his office will handle concerns about the disrepair of a section of Thruway that runs through Seneca Nation territory. The governor acknowledged last week there was a connection between the lack of repairs and an ongoing dispute between the Senecas and the state over casino revenue.

Reed believes Cuomo may be abusing his authority and misusing federal funds by tying together unrelated issues. He voiced those concerns in a letter to Attorney General William Barr and hand-delivered Tuesday to Kennedy in Buffalo.

“(Kennedy) understands that this is a serious request that what we’re trying to do here in regards to holding the governor’s office but at the same time that our priority mission throughout all of this is to make sure the traveling public is safe,” Reed said.

Cuomo’s office dismissed the request for a probe as a cheap stunt and insinuated Reed was “weaponizing law enforcement to score dumb political points.” The congressman said it is absolutely not a stunt.

“When it comes to the lives of the traveling public, we are going to make sure that the shenanigans of political vendettas and political warfare do not risk the lives of people out there on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

The issue has become a bit of a war of words between spokespeople for Reed and Cuomo. The congressman said he is not concerned with being called names, like patsy.

However, he said some people who have expressed concern about the state of I-90 have said they are worried about retribution from the governor who is known to take a hard line with his political opponents.

“We’ve had people come to us and even express concerns about the situation on the highway but did not want to publicly have their information released because their employers told them that they were afraid of losing state contracts and other issues with it,” Reed said.

Finally, the congressman has said he does not believe Cuomo’s explanation that the Senecas will not allow the state on the territory to make repairs. But he said if that is the case, his office is open to mediating a negotiation between the two parties.

Seneca I-90 Issues Enter State Senate Politics Too

From the Morning Memo:

Twice this month, Republican Chautauqua County Executive George Borrello has joined Rep. Tom Reed at press conferences criticizing the governor for allowing a portion of the Thruway that runs through Seneca Nation to fall into disrepair.

Tuesday, Borello said there have been continued complaints from constituents about the state of the road and the damage it’s caused thus far. Reed called for a federal investigation, accusing the governor of potentially misusing federal dollars meant for repairs.

However, Borrello’s Democratic opponent for New York State Senate – the 57th District left open by Cathy Young – turned the narrative on it’s head, accusing the county executive of misusing public funds.

“Borrello not only misused Chautauqua County resources today for this political stunt—he and Reed proved that this is a partisan attempt to harass the Governor,” candidate Austin Morgan said.

“If they actually cared about the Seneca Nation or our roads, they would be in Salamanca every day decrying the years of neglect there. I care about our people, I want the roads fixed, and the way to do it is bringing everyone to the table, not this politically-motivated nonsense.”

Morgan criticized Borello for not saying anything about the road in the previous two years he’s served Chautauqua County. He said the press conferences now are an inappropriate attempt to gain traction for his state Senate run.

“As your next State Senator I will put people over politics. I will meet with the Senate Transportation Chair, Sen. Tim Kennedy, the Seneca Nation of Indians, and the Governor, in order to find solutions and get the roads fixed,” Morgan said. “I will work with all parties to provide resolution and justice for our residents.”

The Democrat did agree the road is in “deplorable” condition.

Reed and Cuomo’s Offices Exchange Choice Words Over Thruway Issue

A war of words has spawned over the condition of a portion of the New York State Thruway that runs through Seneca Nation territory in Western New York.

The road has deteriorated over a number of years, but the issue was brought back to the forefront earlier this month when Republican Congressman Reed put in writing that the state should be held liable if a serious accident on the stretch. Reed suggested the governor was playing politics with traveler safety because of an unrelated dispute with the Seneca about casino revenue.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office had mostly deferred to the Thruway Authority regarding the timeline for repairs but during a press conference this week, suggested there was a connection between the casino dispute and the I-90 issues. He did suggest it was the Senecas potentially holding up the rehabilitation.
Still, Reed pounced Thursday, calling Cuomo’s stance appalling and questioning whether the governor was abusing his authority. That didn’t sit well with Cuomo’s office which offered up a rather harsh statement.
“Everyone knows that the congressman is used to being the president’s patsy but he shouldn’t be the Senecas’ patsy as well. He should do his job, stand with the communities he represents and demand that the Senecas make good on the arbitrators’ decision and make their neighbors whole,” Rich Azzopardi, Senior Advisor to the Governor, said.
Friday, Reed’s office struck back and like its Albany counterpart, didn’t pull any punches.
“Patsy? Unlike the Governor, none of Tom’s aides are in prison for taking bribes in exchange for sweetheart deals. Tom just wants I-90 fixed for the safety of the travelling public. The Federal funds have been delivered. Just fix the road before someone dies,” Communications Director Will Reinert said.
We will wait to see if Cuomo’s Office returns the volley.

Erie County Moving Quickly To Implement Procedures, Find Money For New Early Voting

From the Morning Memo:

The Erie County Board of Elections is scrambling to prepare for New York State’s new early voting period.

The state Legislature passed a series of election reforms in January, including early voting. Lawmakers pushed to have the laws effective this year, in order to establish the systems before the presidential election this year.

However, the rush has been taxing on county boards of elections who received only a few months to get plans in order. Early voting was not required for the primary elections, which were moved up to June, but is required before the general election on November 5.

In Erie County, it will take place from October 26 until November 3 this year.

“What we have to do is implement a procedure and that really involves a change in a lot of our procedures and our software,” Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr said.

Mohr said there are a number of obstacles that the new law presents. It is establishing 37 voting sites that will need things like new electronic poll books, printers and staff.

The inspectors also need to be trained on the new technology and the county needs to establish protocol to make sure people can’t cast multiple votes, and the early votes are held until election day to be counted with the rest.

“We estimate the total cost to be somewhere in the neighborhood of about $3 million,” Mohr said.

Since the law was passed in January, after Erie County had already passed its budget, there is no money specifically allocated for early voting. The state is picking up some of the tab with a roughly $1.1 million dollar grant for Erie County, reimbursable after the county fronts the cost.

Because there is no budget line, the county budget office needs to at least approve that funding and the county Legislature, which is currently on break, may need to take a vote sometime in early September as well.

The Board of Elections says state lawmakers also approved another grant worth $874,000 but the state budget director hasn’t signed off on it yet.

“We’re working very rapidly to try to make sure that we don’t lose any funding and continue along the procedures and the plans that we have in place,” he said.

The quick turnaround has put most counties in the same position of trying to find money for which it hasn’t budgeted. In Erie County, commissioners said they’ve worked extra hard to make sure early voting is available to everybody.

“If you look at counties in Upstate like Monroe and Onondaga, they only have one site in the city of Syracuse and one site in the city of Rochester,” Democratic Elections Commissioner Jeremy Zellner said. “We have ten sites in the city of Buffalo.”

Zellner said there will be sites in close proximity to every voter but also noted people will be allowed to vote at any site in the county.

Rep. Reed Criticizes Cuomo For Stance On Thruway Repairs, Seneca Nation

Rep. Tom Reed, R-NY-23, expressed “great concern” about comments the governor made earlier this week.

During a trip to Western New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed to acknowledge a connection between a section of the New York State thruway on Seneca Nation that has fallen into disrepair and an ongoing dispute between the state and the Senecas over casino revenue. He says Cuomo essentially acknowledged he is putting the traveling public’s safety at risk because of a separate political dispute.

“When you see a bully like that, you need to stand up to that bully and stand with the people and their safety and so we’re going to stand up to the governor and say, you know, this is wrong,” Reed said.

Cuomo, Tuesday, said the state would fix the couple mile stretch of road but he does not believe the Senecas would allow it. He said the state would not go in without permission, lest it jeopardize its legal standing in the casino dispute.

Reed seemed skeptical the Senecas would have a problem with the state making repairs based on the public statements they have made.

“I believe the nation agrees tremendously with us in regards to making sure that the traveling public’s safety is paramount.”

The congressman said the “strategy” could represent an abuse of the governor’s authority. Earlier this month, he sent letters putting the state on written notice it would be liable should the road cause a significant problem for drivers.

“We have heard from numerous people about accidents they’ve been involved with, damage to their vehicles as a result of going through that stretch of highway,” Reed said.

He said his office is keeping close tabs on the situation and there could be more to come.

“Everyone knows that the congressman is used to being the president’s patsy but he shouldn’t be the Senecas’ patsy as well. He should do his job, stand with the communities he represents and demand that the Senecas make good on the arbitrators’ decision and make their neighbors whole,” Rich Azzopardi, Senior Advisor to the Governor, said.

Wilson Foundation Donates To WNY State Parks Projects

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is donating $6.4 million toward improvements to Genesee Valley Grenway State Park and the Niagara Shoreline Trail in Western New York.

The money from the charity created by the estate of the former Buffalo Bills owner is in addition to $4 million the state is already investing in the parks. The state said the projects will make “key connections” to the Empire State Trail, an initiative launched two year ago to create the longest multi-use state trail in the nation by 2020.

“This support from the Wilson Foundation, coupled with new state funding, will help repair, enhance and expand recreational opportunities on these multi-use paths in two beautiful parts of western New York, which Ralph Wilson loved so much,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo,D-NY, said. “His legacy will strengthen tourism, increase safety for bicyclists and hikers, and further revitalize communities that are better connected.”

The improvements include resurfacing, signage and disability access projects in Genesee Valley. The funding  for the Niagara Shoreline will go toward one mile of new trail, a study on how to close gaps in the current trail and a public outreach effort.

“As an avid bicyclist, I know how important this significant funding will be as we continue our efforts to improve connections to the Empire State Trail,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. “We are fortunate that Ralph Wilson’s spirit lives on through generous philanthropic efforts. In celebrating his legacy, we are grateful to the Foundation’s commitment towards our regional trail systems. These investments will expand recreational opportunities, and boost the tourism industry and economy of Western New York.”

The Wilson Foundation grants will be made to the National Heritage Trust which is supporting the work being done by the State Office of Parks.


NY & CT Becoming Fishing Buddies And More

From the Morning Memo:

Two governors take a fishing trip on Lake Ontario…

It sounds like a set up for a joke but that’s actually what happened Tuesday as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hosted Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont in Niagara County. After a couple of hours on the lake, Cuomo presented Lamont with a pole and a tackle box and the two showed off their catches of the day.

However, the Democrats insisted they talked business as well in what could be a burgeoning partnership for the neighboring states. They said there a number of issues and resources the states could benefit from if they worked more cooperatively.

“First thing I’ve learned though is that these state borders are pretty artificial and we have a lot of overlap there,” said Lamont, who’s been on the job for eight months.

The governors pointed to interconnected transportation systems, tourism and security as issues the states could work together better on. They also announced a new mutual aid emergency management compact, allowing police and EMA staff from New York and Connecticut to train together and share best practices.

“The most important issue we can collaborate on is the safety of our residents which is why this emergency management partnership is so crucial,” Cuomo said. “Today’s agreement is about ensuring our two states have the resources we need during difficult times, and that’s what neighboring states do.”

In fact, the northeastern states have been working together even before the governors started sharing fish stories. Earlier this month, for instance, Connecticut gave notice of its intention to file an amicus brief supporting New York State in a lawsuit challenging the new Green Light Law.

“New York-Connecticut, our region is a global center and people from around the world we welcome here. We’re a much stronger state and a much stronger region when we welcome people and that’s not the message they’re always getting out of Washington, D.C. right now. So whether it comes to driver’s licenses and tuition and just really treating people with respect, I think that’s something where New York and Connecticut are aligned and I think our region is aligned so I’m proud to stand next to Governor Cuomo on the driver’s license issue,” Lamont said.

Connecticut has been granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants for more than four years.