MWBEs Seeking Scaffold Law Reforms

From the Morning Memo:

A coalition of minority and women-owned contractor businesses this week released a letter to top lawmakers seeking reforms to the state’s Scaffold Law.

The Scaffold Law is a perennial regulatory change sought by businesses every legislative session. The measure, in short, places safety requirements for work at high elevations, including absolute liability for any injury sustained while falling upon a contractor or owner.

“New York construction insurance costs are at crisis levels and are threatening the well-being of minority and women-owned contractors across New York state,” the contractors wrote in the letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and lawmakers.

“Research shows that construction insurance costs in New York have been significantly inflated by the ‘absolute liability; standard of the Scaffold Law, which is preventing our small businesses from growing and helping to fulfill the MWBE utilization goals set forth by the state legislature.”

The Association for Affordable Housing and the General Contractors Association are also pushing for changes this year, which appear an heavier lift given the Democratic control of both the Assembly and state Senate this term.

Read the full letter here.

New Session A Reset, But Will Tension Remain?

History was made on the first day of the legislative session in Albany with the installation of the first woman to lead the state Senate.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins pointed to the conference’s ambitious agenda.

“We are going to tell the rest of the country that New York is about opportunity,” she said in a speech from the Senate chamber. “Not walls, not barriers. How are we going to tell them? We’re going to tell them by making democracy work.”

Senate Democrats are taking the reins of the chamber with a diverse conference with many firsts, including the first Iranian-American, first Indian-American and first Muslim in the chamber. Sen. Brad Hoylman says the diversity will lead to new legislation impacting all New Yorkers.

“I think you’ll see a state Senate that is responsive to the people of New York because we look like New York,” he said.

This year lawmakers are expected to pass legislation meant to make it easier to vote, strengthen abortion laws and new gun control measures. But they also plan to challenge Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Sen. James Skoufis, who will chair a committee with subpoena power, has signaled a willingness to review areas potentially sensitive to the governor’s administration.

“My feeling is there’s a ripeness for the first time in a longtime to act as a co-equal branch of government,” he said.

There’s been long-standing tension between Cuomo and legislative Democrats, heightened in part last year by the decision of a pay commission decision granting legislative salary hikes, but with stipulations that stipends and outside pay be curtailed in the process.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul says that will evaporate as lawmakers and the governor come together on a budget deal in March.

“I believe that when it comes down to the final hours of the budget we will come together and let the rest of the nation know what a functioning, well-run government looks like,” Hochul said.

And in the Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie says lawmakers are more focused on working with Democrats in the Senate after years of Republican rule.

“I think members are probably speaking from the point that there are many ideas that were not supported by the Republican-controlled Senate and in that vein, I think people are looking forward to working with the Senate,” he said.

Session Starts Today Amid Big Expectations For Democrats

From the Morning Memo:

Single-party rule is returning to the state Capitol as Democrats will formally assume the mantle of governing the state Senate later today as the 2019 legislative session bigs amid the expectation lawmakers will take up long-stalled measures.

It’s also a history-making day for the Legislature: Andrea Stewart-Cousins will become the first black woman to lead a majority conference in New York state government.

Stewart-Cousins will be sworn in by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore around 1 p.m. along with a brief organizational meeting of the Senate. Across the building, the Assembly will convene at around midday.

The day is nearly 10 years in the making, a decade after Democrats last held power in the Senate, a disastrous two-year term marred by a legislative coup. Virtually the entire leadership of the Democratic conference is now out of office and, in many cases, serving time in prison.

It’s going to be a lot of pomp and circumstance today: Speeches and receptions, mixed with the formal installation of the legislative leaders.

But lawmakers may savor this day as a chance to catch their collective breath. The coming weeks are expected to bring a flurry of legislative activity to reform election and campaign finance laws, strengthen the state’s abortion and contraceptive rights measures, pass new gun control legislation and potentially legalize marijuana for adult use.

Still, there will be speed bumps and land mines along the way.

The state budget may be one of the biggest of all in less than three months: Gov. Andrew Cuomo will likely be at odds with lawmakers who are pushing to sharply increase education aid by $4 billion as called for by education advocates and a single-payer health care proposal that he has signaled is too costly for the state.

Cuomo has telegraphed both a desire to work with the freshman lawmakers — some of whom have strong political and personal differences with him — while also urging them to find ways of notching accomplishments, not simply promote a cause.

Democrats may also seek ways of containing the increasingly powerful governor as well as he enters his third term, including investigations by committees with subpoena power.

Smarting from a pay increase agreement that included strings attached by a compensation commission limiting outside pay and cutting back on stipends, there is little love lost between Cuomo and the Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie.

The governor may be counting on institutional forces, however, to win out: Lawmakers still need to get basic accomplishments, like funding schools, and protecting marginal members in the Senate, especially in the suburbs. He retains leverage over the budget process and, after eight years of tangling with the political right and left, can point to a mandate from voters in both the closed party primary and among general election voters.

Voter Advocates Seek ‘Back-End’ System For Registration

From the Morning Memo:

A coalition that’s backing an effort to automatically register voters in New York wants final legislation to include a “back-end” system that adds eligible voters to the rolls without the prospective voter having to take any action.

The proposal was spelled out in a memo to the top legislative leaders in the Senate and Assembly as well as the chairmen of the legislative elections committees.

“A back-end system determines eligibility by using data individuals already provide in their interaction with the government agency,” the memo states. “Relying on automation and existing documentation reduces the risk of human error present in a front-end system, where individuals are registered based on their attestations at an agency, which is often a stress-filled, rushed environment.”

The back-end provision is opposed to a “front-end” policy that would have eligible voters make decision about registration, including an opt-out when interacting with a government agency.

Lawmakers this year are expected to consider a package of election and voting law changes that are meant to make it easier to vote in the state and potentially boost turnout. In addition to automatic registration, lawmakers are considering early voting, consolidating the state and local primaries and no-excuse absentee balloting.

Read the full memo here.

Expanding Public Campaign Finance Laws

From the Morning Memo:

Election reform is a top contender on Democrats’ legislative priorities this session, particularly in the area of expanding public campaign finance laws.

At the state capitol Monday advocates and elected officials voiced how tough it can be for first time candidates to raise enough money to run.

Albany Common Council President Corey Ellis said that without bird in the hand corporate connections or independent wealth, it’s difficult to convince donors, and voters, you’re a winner.

“The worst thing you want to heard someone say is, ‘well you can’t win because you don’t have the money,'” Ellis said.

Assemblywoman Pat Fahy said when she first ran for her seat seven years ago, thoughts about financing the operation was nearly both the beginning and the end of her foray into public office.

“The very first night I made a couple of calls and they said 50 to 75 thousand dollars…I would’ve gone to bed that night saying, ‘that’s it I’m done,’ if they had said more,” she said.

In the end, her decision to run was made separate from the financial imposition burden, but, that burden is immense.

“Ultimately we did raise that money,” said Fahy, “and we raised it nickel by nickel.”

But critics, like state Sen. Cathy Young, say public financing of campaigns awards further credence to a corruption system.

“In New York City, the public financing of campaigns has become a cauldron of corruption,” said Young in a statement, naming lawmakers who have taken advantage of the program in the past, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and citing the Campaign Finance Board as chief perpetrator.

Not to mention, she argues, the price tag is too hefty for taxpayers.

“Currently, New York State is projected to have a $500 million budget deficit in the forthcoming fiscal year. Modeled after New York City’s public financing system, legislation passed by the State Assembly and sponsored by Democrats in the State Senate would cost taxpayers more than $200 million.”

Young is the ranking Republican on both the Senate Election’s and Ethics Committees and said she will utilize the committee review process, “to raise awareness and marshall public opposition to the Democrats’ plan.”

Cuomo’s DMV Nominee Says He Backs Driver’s Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s nominee to lead the Department of Motor Vehicles said Saturday he would work to implement driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants if the measure is approved by state lawmakers.

“Once the policymakers have their say and if they pass a joint a bill and the governor signs it, I will fully implement what the legislation says and what the letter of the law is,” said Mark Schroeder, the departing Buffalo city comptroller who was nominated this week to become the DMV commissioner. “That’s what I’ll do.”

Schroeder clarified his stance on the issue a day after Cuomo’s office formally announced he would be nominated to lead the department.

Schroeder in the Assembly was opposed to the effort in 2007, when Gov. Eliot Spitzer sought to implement driver’s licenses for undocumented residents through executive action.

Schroeder called Spitzer’s approach at the time “misguided” because he did not seek legislative approval.

“The way to do it in my view is through legislation,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s my view the New York state Legislature is doing this the proper way.”

Spitzer’s effort on the driver’s licenses proposal ignited a political firestorm at the time and he ultimately withdrew the plan.

Schroeder’s appointment is subject to confirmation by the Democratic-led state Senate. For now, lawmakers in the chamber have not raised concerns to him about the issue, he said.

“I’m certain these types of issues are going to come up and I’m going to my best to talk about them,” he said.

Schroeder also plans to discuss the measure with the county clerks who run local motor vehicle offices who have raised concerns in the past.

Among those who have signaled their opposition is Mickey Kearns, the Erie County clerk and, like Schroeder, a former member of the Assembly.

At the time of Spitzer’s proposal, then-Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul was opposed. As lieutenant governor, Hochul has since changed her stance.

“I’ll do my best to do what I can to navigate and be helpful,” Schroeder said.

Glick, Krueger Reintroduce RHA

Lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly this week reintroduced the Reproductive Health Act, an abortion-rights strengthening measure that is on the cusp of passage as Democrats will hold both chambers of the Legislature this session.

The measure, sponsored by Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and Sen. Liz Krueger, is expected to be voted on in the coming weeks, with the potential for the vote to be held by Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

The bill would change abortion’s current status as an exception to homicide, and regulate it under the public health law instead of the penal code. It would also allow abortions in the third trimester of a pregnancy under certain circumstances.

“The vast majority of New Yorkers agree that the complex and deeply personal decision of whether to have an abortion should be made by a woman and her health care provider – not the government,” Krueger said in a statement.

“For too long, women in our state have had their health and safety compromised by our outdated abortion laws. With reproductive rights and access under attack from Washington in a way we haven’t seen in decades, now is the time to pass the Reproductive Health Act and reclaim New York’s place as a leader on women’s reproductive freedom. I look forward to casting my vote and sending this vital and historic legislation to the Governor’s desk as soon as possible.”

It has failed to gain a vote under Republican control, but will likely head to the floor in the coming weeks as Democrats now control the chamber, with the first woman majority leader.

“New York women deserve to have their own healthcare decisions respected,” Glick said. “Abortion is a medical procedure, not a crime. The days of demonizing women’s reproductive healthcare must come to an end. When abortion is illegal women die, and pregnancy is not a risk free condition. Women, in consultation with healthcare professionals, and not legislators, should make decisions that affect their own health free of interference. After years of fighting for the passage of this essential protection for women, our moment has finally arrived.”

Opponents of the bill, like the Catholic Conference’s Kathleen Gallagher, expect it to pass. But they are still launching an effort to rally opposition.

“We know that it’s highly likely this bill would pass. So we’re educating people and we’re urging people to protest by sending messages to their lawmakers and calling their lawmakers. We’re putting out bulletin inserts in all of our parishes throughout the state,” said Kathleen Gallagher, director of Pro-Life Activities at the Catholic Conference.

Lowey, King Back SALT Cap Repeal

From the Morning Memo:

Reps. Nita Lowey and Peter King on Thursday announced legislation that would end the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions.

The bill would end a provision of the 2017 tax law that impacts high-tax states like New York, especially in expensive areas like the metropolitan region. Lowey, a Democrat, and King, a Republican, represent suburban Westchester and Long Island.

“Repealing the SALT deduction was a callous move designed to target New York taxpayers, who are taxed enough as is. That’s why I’m proud to reintroduce my bill,” Lowey said.

“Protecting this deduction is more important than ever with the Trump Administration’s continued assault on the middle class. Our bill ensures that New York families see tax relief, not more tax burdens.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, too, has railed against the cap. State lawmakers and Cuomo in New York have backed legislation allowing local governments to create charitable vehicles for donations that can be deductible in an effort to workaround the cap.

Coalition Seeks Updated Surrogacy Laws

A coalition has formed to push this year for legislation that would make it easier for families to gain access to vitro fertilization or gestational surrogacy procedures.

The legislation is geared to both families that experience infertility as well as LGBTQ families and eliminates requirements for establishment parenthood for lesbian couples as well as decriminalization gestational surrogacy.

The bill would update the state’s laws so that the intended parents who have enlisted the aid of a third-party to conceive their child have a legal relationship with the child at the moment of birth. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin.

“New York is known as a place where every type of family is welcome. Unfortunately, our state’s progressive ideals fall short when it comes to supporting LGBTQ people and so many others who want to become parents,” said The Rev. Stan J. Sloan, the CEO of Family Equality Council, a group that backs issues of concern for LGBTQ families.

“New York’s outdated laws lag far behind most other states in easing the burden for families who rely on assisted reproductive technology to become parents. Fifty years after Stonewall, it’s time to protect all New York families.”

The coalition, known as the Protecting Modern Families Coalition, wants to see both measures approved in the new legislative session. The coalition includes the Academy for Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys, American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Auburn Theological Seminary, Equality New York, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of New York City, RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, Union Theological Seminary, and Men Having Babies.

James Sworn In As AG

From the Morning Memo:

Letitia James was sworn in as the state’s new attorney general at a low-key ceremony at the state Capitol in Albany, her office said on Monday evening.

James is the first black woman to be elected to the post of top legal officer in the state.

“It is the highest honor to officially begin my time as the Attorney General for the great state of New York,” James said in a statement.

“Tonight, I made a commitment to use the rule of law to protect the rights and advance the interests of all New Yorkers, and I will never waver in upholding that promise. New Yorkers in every corner of our state must know that they have a champion fighting for them everyday.”

She is also expected to appear at the inauguration ceremony on Ellis Island with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other statewide elected officials.

James is taking over an office that less than a year ago was rocked by the resignation of Democratic incumbent Eric Schneiderman amid allegations of sexual and physical abuse.

The former public advocate, James is expected to continue the office’s aggressive posture in pursuing legal challenges to President Donald Trump’s policies and his administration.

Schneiderman’s successor appointed by the Legislature in May, Barbara Underwood, also made headway on the case against the Trump Foundation, the now-defunct charity the president founded and was run by his family, but came under scrutiny for how its funds were used to promote business and political interests.

Underwood is staying on in the attorney general’s office as the solicitor general, the job she held before she was elevated to continue out Schneiderman’s term in office.