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

Moody’s: Seneca Arbitration Decision ‘Credit Positive’ For WNY Cities

From the Morning Memo:

Moody’s Investors Services said last week’s resolution in an arbitration between the state and the Seneca of Nation of Indians will have a positive financial impact on three Western New York cities.

The arbitration panel ruled the Senecas must continue to pay the state a percentage of the nation’s slot machine revenues, as well as nearly two years of back payments. Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca will all receive funding they have been due but were not receiving while this battle was being waged.

Of the three cities, Niagara Falls was in the worst financial shape, with a negative rating from Moody’s. While, the rating service’s declaration of “credit positive” does not automatically mean there will be an imminent credit rating or outlook change, it is a recognition of a significant event for the city.

“In particular, the ruling will greatly improve the financial position of the City of Niagara Falls (Baa3 negative), which relies heavily on Seneca Nation revenue-sharing funds to support operations,” the report reads.

Moody’s noted Salamanca also relies heavily on the funding, but was in a better financial position than Niagara Falls at the outset of this prolonged fight. The service pointed out that only some of the lost casino revenue could be made up from a property tax increase, so cuts would’ve been needed had the arbitration not ended up the way it did.

“Had the Seneca Nation won the arbitration and refused to make payments to these cities going forward, both cities would have faced significant financial uncertainty,” Moody’s said.

The report said even though the amount of money Buffalo received was small compared to the city’s total budget, it had still “struggled to maintain balanced operations, and any loss of recurring revenue can be difficult to absorb.”

Peoples-Stokes Ceremonially Sworn In As Majority Leader

From the Morning Memo:

Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes made history last night.

She became the first woman and the first African American to hold the position of Assembly majority leader. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie picked Peoples-Stokes late last year, but she was officially sworn in during a ceremony at True Bethel Church in Buffalo.

She said she hopes to be an inspiration to others.

“I sure hope that every little girl who is in school today and maybe being told by their guidance counselor, like I was, that I wasn’t college material, that they will pursue whatever goal it is that they desire based on what they have within themselves because they see me here,” she said. “I hope that it does motivate people to want to go higher.”

A number of Peoples-Stokes’ Assembly and state Senate colleagues from Western New York attended the event, as well as Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul – also a Buffalo native.

The LG said she was proud Heastie had picked the “very best,” adding: “(Peoples-Stokes) is the most experienced, qualified, passionate, and energetic person – who happens to be a woman, and a woman of color.”

The majority leader said that outside of supporting the speaker’s agenda, her priorities remain the same. At the top of that list is legalizing the adult use of marijuana, which the governor has came around to embracing, and included in this budget proposal.

Peoples-Stokes Pleased Governor Focusing On Disenfranchised Communities In Cannabis Bill

From the Morning Memo:

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes for years now has sponsored legislation to legalize the adult-use of marijuana.

Now with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s full weight behind the issue, Peoples-Stokes expected an executive proposal in the budget. She hoped it would include many of the same ideas she has championed though.

Specifically, the assemblywoman wanted to make sure revenue from the new industry is earmarked for largely impoverished minority communities who have been disenfranchised by a disproportionate level of enforcement of the current law. She said she did have some expectation the governor would include that as part of his bill based on the conversations she’d had leading up to the budget address, but was still happy to hear it in his speech.

“I did smile a little bit about that,” she said. “That was pleasing.”

But as Cuomo has often said, it’s the details that are important and Peoples-Stokes says she doesn’t know exactly how the bill aims to help these communities but she has her own ideas. For instance she said the state should provide resources to incentivize the kinds of businesses that make for stronger communities.

“We incentivize Tesla to come and bring some jobs that they haven’t even quite completed yet. Why don’t we incentivize a market to come and bring fresh food to communities that are clearly food deserts,” she said.

Peoples-Stokes called for investment in general for disenfranchised communities, as well as resources for people who want to get involved in the legal cannabis business.

Cuomo Twice Thanks Outgoing State Dem Chair

From the Morning Memo:

The New York State Democratic Committee sent out a statement from the governor last night, thanking the outgoing chairman and Buffalo mayor, Byron Brown, for his service.

Brown was handpicked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016 to lead the party, and performed in that position loyally ever since. However, in a bit of a surprise move, Cuomo has denied to have Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs return to head the state party that he originally chaired during former Gov. David Paterson’s tenure.

The governor briefly thanked Brown in an early press release, but then elaborated on it later in the day with a longer statement.

“Byron Brown is one of New York’s most accomplished and inspiring Democratic leaders, and we are so grateful to him for his service to our party as committee chair,” Cuomo said.

The statement appeared to be rather quickly put together, with the governor alternating between the first and third person point of view.

“During his tenure, Democrats gained new U.S. House seats and flipped the State Senate, and the Democratic governor won more votes than any governor in history,” it read.

“At the same time, Byron partnered with the governor to bring about Buffalo’s historic transformation and resurgence, and while we will miss him on the committee, we understand that he is bringing renewed focus to lift Buffalo to even greater heights. On behalf of all New York Democrats, I thank Byron Brown for his unparalleled record of accomplishments and historic victories.”

At least in Western New York, the leadership change did not seem to be perceived as a slight to Brown. The Erie County Democratic Committee Chair Jeremy Zellner issued a statement congratulating Jacobs, while also thanking Brown for his service.

The outgoing chair did not release his own statement, or explain why he was being abruptly replaced.

Erie County GOP Chair Argues Election Reform Could Lead To Fraud

Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy warned voters should beware “legalized rigged elections” ahead of expected election reform votes Monday in the state Legislature.

Langworthy said the Legislature, now totally under Democratic control, is trying to make sure elections are skewed in their favor for years to come. The GOP boss said the package of legislation is being rushed and as a result cannot be well thought out public policy.

“There have been no public hearings,” Langworthy said. “New York taxpayers deserve some honest hard work, debate and discussion from their legislators on an issue as critical as the future of our elections, not a package thrown on their desk by the Governor with a demand for an affirmative vote.

In particular, he expressed concern about “ballot harvesting” if no-fault absentee voting is approved. The measure would open the absentee process up to all registered voters, who could cast their ballot without an approved excuse needed under the current system.

“Ballot harvesting” he said is when paid election workers collect massive amounts of absentee ballots for delivery to boards of election or polling places.

“It is nothing more than an opportunity for special interests to commit voter fraud,” he said. “It is the practice that is the central focus of the controversial 9th Congressional District of North Carolina that has led to the voiding of the 2018 election and will lead to a new election being called.  This nefarious practice was also legalized by phony reformers in California and led to wild irregularities in 2018. Those that believe in honest elections must work to prevent ‘ballot harvesting’ from coming to New York State.”

Langworthy also expressed concerns about same day voting and automatic voter registration. He said the measures could encourage a Tammany Hall-style vote “early and often” practice in New York.

Finally, he said the bills offer zero protections against undocumented immigrants voting and argued there should be a comprehensive voter identification requirement.

Erie County Legislator Calls For Official Social Media Policy

Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Joe Lorigo, C-West Seneca, has asked the county attorney to draft a social media policy for elected officials.

Lorigo has publicly questioned whether the county attorney’s office should be defending County Executive Mark Poloncarz, D, in a potential defamation lawsuit. In a December notice of claim, the former operators of Emerald South, a nursing rehabilitation center, said the county executive made false and defamatory statements about them, some on Twitter.

While Lorigo said he is not making a judgement on the validity of the legal action, he pointed out Poloncarz has repeatedly referred to his social media accounts as personal. The minority leader said if that’s the case, taxpayer dollars should not be used as a defense.

Furthermore, he said the legal issues illustrated why the line between personal and public social media cannot be blurred.

“It is misleading to the public to use an account for government-related purposes while at the same time making personal statements and pushing people to attend political fundraisers,” Lorigo said. “As elected officials, it is important we separate our official public statements from those we make as private citizens”

The legislator acknowledged the action could appear to be targeting Poloncarz specifically, but he said all elected officials would benefit from clear rules. Lorigo said the county executive pointed out the county executive is just one of the most prolific and high-profile social media users in the region.

He said he would be happy to work with the county attorney to answer questions, particularly about the use of private and/or public accounts to solicit political contributions. Lorigo noted other government’s across the state are addressing the issue, including Ulster County in response to questions about the sheriff’s posts.

He believes the Erie County rules could be modeled after the federal guidelines in the Hatch Act.

LG Hochul “Very Confident” Voting Reform Coming ASAP

The Cuomo administration has made voting reform its first priority for this upcoming election.

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, D-NY, doesn’t expect any hold up when it comes to getting a number of those bills passed. She told reporters in Buffalo to expect “robust reforms” to pass starting Monday.

“Oh I’m very confident,” she said. “I’m very confident.”

The LG said the first priorities of the Legislature will be to pass early voting. She expects the legislation will allow voters to case their ballots for at least ten days prior to the November election.

The September primary may soon be coming to an end, as well. Hochul said it doesn’t make sense to hold two primaries, a federal one in June, and state and locals three months later.

By moving everything to June, she said it will remove a costly burden for local boards of election and increase voter participation.

“It is disgraceful that we are one of the last states, the lowest performing states when it comes to voter participation,” she said.

Finally, she said “same day registration” will be among the early priorities. The measure she said will make it easier for everybody to vote.

She blamed the Legislature’s past inaction on the state Senate formerly controlled by Republicans.

“It’s been one of our highest priorities and now we have the votes we needed in the Senate,” Hochul said. “I believe it’s going to happen almost immediately. It’s one of our first priorities to get more participation in our democracy and make sure that there’s access to the ballot box.”

The lieutenant governor said other measures like voting by mail are in the administration’s sights, but will take a little bit longer because they need a constitutional amendment in order to become law.

Langworthy Intensifying Push For GOP Chairmanship

From the Morning Memo:

This week 11 Republican county chairmen from the North Country region of New York State delivered a letter to GOP State Chairman Ed Cox, asking for his resignation.

In the letter, they called the 2018 election cycle disastrous for NYGOP on nearly all levels. Specifically, they pointed to losses by large margins, ceding control of the state Senate, and squandering “a credible opportunity against a flawed governor.”

The county leaders said the gubernatorial candidate, Marc Molinaro, was not to blame as he was left to run with no time to raise money, no clear endorsement and no solidarity from the party. Molinaro reentered the race last year at the urging of county chairs after the party couldn’t rally behind other interested candidates.

The chairmen blamed Cox and party leadership for the perceived disorder.

“Mr. Chairman, the North Country Republicans request that you graciously resign from your position and allow a new leader to take the reins,” they wrote. “Waiting for the undeniable outcome of an election for State Chairman would only delay the needed restructuring and revitalization our party sorely needs and would send a message to the citizens of our state that we aren’t serious about becoming a viable party again.”

Despite the letter Cox told Daily News reporter Ken Lovett, who broke the story, that he did not have plans to leave. That could set up for a contested state chairmanship race this fall.

Erie County GOP boss Nick Langworthy was not among those who called for Cox’s resignation. However, a chairman told Lovett he was “likely the favorite” to replace him.

Langworthy had no comment on the letter and has not publicly lobbied for the job, but a senior GOP source said he has been quietly working to build support for several years now as the heir apparent. That effort has intensified in the aftermath of the 2018 election and he has recently been traveling the state to speak with colleagues the source said.

It is not clear yet when the state party’s reorganization meeting will be. They are required to hold it within the first 21 days following New York’s primary, but some expect the Legislature to move the primary from September to June to coincide with federal elections this year.

Moody’s Paints Negative Financial Picture For Del Lago Casino

Moody’s Investor Services has downgraded ratings for Del Lago Casino in the Finger Lakes region for the second straight year.

Moody’s said Del Lago’s ramp up in terms of gross gaming revenue remains well below expectation. It does not believe the casino will generate enough money to cover its financial obligations over the next 12-18 months.

“As a result, without further equity investment of some type — the company contributed about $11 million of cash equity earlier this as part of a covenant amendment — Moody’s is of the opinion that Lago will require a restructuring that involves some level of impairment,” Moody’s Senior Vice President Keith Foley said.

The company said the casino’s key credit challenges include the slower than expected ramp up and the highly competitive nature of the market. Moody’s pointed to Oneida-run Turning Stone Casino, about 75 miles to the east, as well as Seneca facilities to the west as direct competitors.

The tribal facilities have a more favorable tax regime than del Lago. There are also four “racinos” within 100 miles, dipping into the market share.

“The downgrade and the negative outlook consider that despite a slight pickup in Lago’s monthly gaming revenue, this improvement is not enough to alleviate Moody’s concern that Lago will be challenged to support its annual fixed charges of about $50 million going forward,” Foley said.

During the final days of state budget negotiations last year, the casino asked legislative leaders and the governor’s office for assistance, potentially in the form of a lower tax rate. Many lawmakers pushed back on the idea of a “bailout” and it was not included in the budget.

Del Lago officially opened in Feburary 2017.

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.”