Albany

Restless Legislature In Albany Wants To Exert More Power Over The Budget — But How?

With the budget ink drying, newly arrived state lawmakers are clearly frustrated.

Sen. Julia Salazar found it absurd she had to vote — again — on a measure containing a permanent property tax cap provision that she had previously voted against. She reluctantly voted yes on the budget measure.

“My only motivation to vote Yes, reluctantly, on this budget is that I know that our conference is stronger when we stand together and support the Leader in achieving transformative change for this state,” Salazar wrote on Twitter. “And I look forward to working to change this undemocratic budget process.”

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi is also eager to change how the budget is actually cobbled together.

“We’ve seen how this process is done. It is illuminating, it is inspiring, and we will look forward to transforming it,” she said.

And it’s not just freshman who are frustrated by the amount of sway the governor has over the budget. Sen. Mike Gianaris told NY1’s Zack Fink he wants to introduce a constitutional amendment that would overhaul the executive’s leverage over the budget.

“The power in the budget process is dangerously in the direction of the governor,” Gianaris said.

An amendment with a similar goal was proposed in the wake of Silver v. Pataki and Pataki v. Assembly — a pair of court cases that ultimately affirmed the governor’s power over the budget-making process. The amendment, as Cuomo senior advisor Rich Azzopardi pointed out, “went down in flames” when put before voters in a 2005 referendum.

Either way, even that the amendment is being discussed shows how much influence Gov. Andrew Cuomo has over how New York spends money and what policy is included in the final budget deal.

The governor is ultimately in the driver’s seat for the budget-making process, introducing a spending plan in January that, under the modern-day law, the Legislature can only subtract spending from, not add to or amend. And the governor wields the power of the line-item veto, a power presidents have sought, but do not have.

The power was further cemented by Gov. David Paterson, who amid a near-record late budget included virtually the remainder of his plan in an emergency extender bill that lawmakers ultimately passed.

Cuomo, now in his third term, is particularly adept at wielding budgetary leverage over state lawmakers, who can feel like they’ve been reduced to virtual bystanders in the closed-door negotiations.

In one small example, a message of necessity did not come for lawmakers to pass a budget bill funding the Legislature and judiciary in the state did not arrive from the governor’s office until the Senate approved a joint resolution increasing the salaries of the governor and lieutenant governor.

The pendulum has been in the other direction. Prior to Franklin Roosevelt’s time in office, there was no formal budget, but a rather chaotic application of spending made by department chiefs to the Legislature. Several governors, including William Sulzer, Charles Evans Hughes and Martin Glynn, sought to exert more executive control over the budget.

Hughes, by way of Robert Ward’s book on state government, once wrote that, “Each assemblyman used his influence to put what he wanted into the appropriation bill before it left the assembly, and when it reached the senate the same thing happen. In fact, there was a story prevalent in Albany in 1915 that one of the clerks of the assembly amended the appropriation bill himself by inserting an item in it while carrying it down the assembly to the senate chamber.”

It’s hard to imagine Cuomo ever wishing to slide back to anything closely resembling a situation like this one. He’s been doing this for the balance of his adult life, and knows which levers to pull and when.

Cuomo did largely get what he wanted in this budget, despite calls for more spending on education or the more straightforward approval of a public campaign financing system.

In the end, legislators divulged more power away from them and to commissions.

State Police To End Release Of Booking Photos

Booking photos will no longer be released by the State Police as part of an agreement in the newly approved state budget.

The State Police will release booking photos, commonly known as mug shots, only if there is a “specific law enforcement purpose” the agency said in a statement on Wednesday. Exceptions include searching for fugitives or missing people, the State Police said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had initially proposed ending the release of mug shots earlier this year as part of a broader move toward criminal justice law changes as advocates had raised concerns about the use of the photos hurting an accused’s reputation.

News entities frequently use mug shots when reporting on the arrests of individuals.

But mug shots have proved problematic in the online world as some websites publish mug shots and charge a fee for their removal.

Initially, budget language before lawmakers would have ended the release of all booking information. This language was later amended so that only the release of booking photos would be banned.

Moody’s Cheers Congestion Pricing Plan

The credit rating agency Moody’s in a report on Tuesday called the plan to institute congestion pricing tolls in Manhattan south of 60th Street a “credit positive” for the MTA and state and city of New York.

The congestion pricing plan, part of a broader plan to raise capital funding for mass transit in the metropolitan area, was included in the approved state budget, which passed on Monday. It is expected to raise up to $15 billion in bonds.

“Given the essential nature of mass transit to the economies of New York City and New York State, both governments will also benefit from the MTA’s improvements,” Moody’s found.

“In addition, approval of the congestion pricing plan is a key step in resolving uncertainty over the MTA’s funding future, which has been a looming fiscal challenge for all three entities. Questions remain, however, about funding for the rest of the MTA’s estimated $40 billion capital plan, which will be released in the second half of 2019.”

The tolling component was folded in with a plan that would collect sales tax on out-of-state internet purchases as well as a surcharge on real estate transfers worth $3 million and above.

Creating a system of tolling to enter Manhattan has been debated since at least Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

“If congestion pricing successfully discourages vehicular traffic, the MTA’s transit services will benefit from reduced competition, improved bus service and higher ridership,” the report found. “The MTA’s ridership has declined for four consecutive years, despite population and job growth, because of weak service performance and competition from ride-sharing services and other alternatives.”

The Budget Is Done, Here’s What Could Be Next

From the Morning Memo:

The 2019-20 state budget is in the books, but state lawmakers still have another three months left in the legislative session.

There’s a lot the spending plan didn’t cover, and in the post-budget session, legislators are on more equal footing with the governor. Here’s what to watch for in the post-budget session.

Marijuana legalization:

The issue remains one of the more complex projects for state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Originally ticketed to be in the state budget, differences and concerns quickly arose at the start of the year. Cuomo wanted to use some of the revenue to fund mass transit in New York City, part of an overall restructuring of the MTA. But lawmakers in support of the plan also wanted to use money generated by marijuana to aid communities effected by stiffer drug laws. And other lawmakers, primarily suburban legislators, raised concerns over traffic safety associated with marijuana legalization.

There is also a criminal justice component to legalization: Records of those with low-level offenses would be expunged.

Cuomo had sought to create a new bureaucracy for cannabis regulation in New York, a move that would have placed medicinal marijauana, hemp and commercial use under one government roof. Lawmakers rejected that idea.

It’s not yet clear if those differences can be ironed out by the end of June.

Rent control:

Regulations governing rent primarily in New York City are due to expire at the end of June. With Democrats in control of both the state Assembly and the state Senate now, the expectation is the proposal for renewing the regulations will be largely pro-tenant. There will likely be a push to end or at least limit vacancy decontrol, a move that Cuomo announced his support for in December.

But one of the most powerful and well-funded lobbies in Albany is that of real estate interests, represented by the Real Estate Board of New York. Rent control renewal could be a comparatively easy chore given the Democratic composition of the Legislature or a heavy lift.

Prevailing wage:

A provision that would have applied the prevailing wage to construction projects with any public funding faltered at the end of the budget talks. Cuomo this week at a press conference hailing the budget’s passage indicated the issue would be brought up again in the post-budget session. Prevailing wage advocates and opponents battled over the measure during the end of March. Construction unions had pushed to have it included; industry trade groups argued it hurt “open shop” firms that are not unionized in New York.

Public financing of elections:

Wait — didn’t we just do that? The issue will be a dormant one until the commission created in the budget to assess election and campaign finance laws in New York releases its report on Dec. 1. This could lead to the creation of publicly financed campaigns. It could also lead to the end of fusion voting, spelling trouble for entities like the Conservative Party and the Working Families Party. And it could force lawmakers back in December to Albany to make alterations to the report. The holiday season could be a messy one for Albany.

Wild card:

This has been an unusual legislative session given that the first half was front-loaded with legislative activity. Lawmakers passed new gun control measures as well a bill strengthening abortion rights. LGBT legislation was approved, as well as measures designed to close the LLC loophole in state election law. The budget took care of a lot more, including an extension of mayoral control for New York City schools by three years and a permanent cap on property tax increases.

That being said, Cuomo often has something else he may want from lawmakers by the time June rolls around. And that may not be known just yet — not even to him.

After Schoharie Crash, New York Addresses Limo Safety

State lawmakers in the budget approved measures meant to crack down on unsafe stretch limousines and make it easier for inspectors to get them off the road if deemed to be dangerous.

The changes come after an October stretch limousine crash in Schoharie killed 20 people, including the driver and two bystanders.

The new regulations include doubled penalties for violating safety rules and regulations for limousine operation. At the same time, the Department of Motor Vehicles would be permitted to confiscate license plates of stretch limousines that have failed to pass inspection.

Limousines that have been found to be altered to become “stretch” limos would also be subject to an inspection beyond the typical motor vehicle inspection process. Operators of stretch limousines would also have to display its safety qualifications and licensing, including inspection information, driver qualifications, and operating authority.

Operating a stretch limousine that has been suspended would subject a person to a felony. Stretch limousines would also be barred from making U-turn on any public highways.

At the same time, new insurance coverage would be required for stretch limousine operators.

“We put some additional insurance coverage on limousine services that I think are appropriate under the circumstances,” said Sen. Neil Breslin.

Assemblyman Phil Steck said he was supportive of the changes, but question whether the increased penalties would go far enough.

“I think it’s an improvement,” he said. “The difficulty is everyone loves increased criminal penalties don’t solve problems, they punish problems after they occurred.”

The vehicle involved in the October 2018 crash was found to have been taken out of service and a sticker reading “unservicable” had bbeen removed.

Lawmakers ‘Meh’ On Budget, Cuomo Rejoices

Gov. Andrew Cuomo really likes this budget.

He underscored that on Sunday night while wrapping up his press conference, stood on the pharmacist-like riser and declared it one of the best budgets he’s worked on since becoming governor in 2011.

“This is the best budget that has been produced since I’ve been governor and I applaud all the people who worked on it,” he said.

State lawmakers have been less then thrilled, however.

“I’ll be the first one to say that this is not a great budget,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to his members after nearly 20 hours of debating and voting on the budget legislation. “There’s not a lot of happiness in this budget. There’s a lot of things that are missing in this budget.”

To be sure, lawmakers are pointing to the criminal justice law changes — eliminating cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies — as a major step forward, even as they want to go further.

But the budget also cedes authority from the Legislature on both tolling in New York City when entering Manhattan and creating a system of publicly funded campaigns. The commissions were formed only three months after lawmakers blasted a similarly devised panel that granted pay raises for state officials and lawmakers, but also capped outside pay for the Legislature and eliminated stipends.

Cuomo got what he wanted, or is at least pleased with what he won.

DiNapoli Deems The Budget On Time

The state’s fiscal year officially changed at midnight today and the final budget legislation did not pass after a marathon evening and morning until seven hours later.

But Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has declared the budget an on-time document, a declaration that’s key for legislators and cabinet commissioners to receive a $10,000 boost in pay.

“The State Legislature has passed the 2019-20 state budget,” said Jennifer Freeman, a spokeswoman for DiNapoli.

“The Office of the State Comptroller determined that the budget was sufficient for the ongoing operation and support of state government and local assistance. As a practical matter the budget was passed when the state opened for business on April 1.”

A report released late last year by a pay commission backed salary increases for legislators, raising their pay in the first phase in from $79,500 to $110,000. Future pay raises were tied to “performance” which has been taken to mean the passage of a budget by the start of the state’s fiscal year.

The Legislature this morning also approved a joint resolution granting Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul a pay raise as well. Cuomo’s salary will increase from $179,000 to $200,000. Future pay raises will be based on the passage of “timely” budgets by the Legislature, according to the adopted resolution.

Di Napoli by Nick Reisman on Scribd

Legislature Approves Pay Raise Resolution For Cuomo, Hochul

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul are in line for a boost in their salaries following a resolution approved by the Democratic-led Legislature early Monday morning after a marathon vote on the state budget.

The resolution would boost Cuomo’s pay from $179,000 to $200,000, retroactive to Jan. 1, and enacts a recommendation from a pay commission announced late last year that also supported salary increases for lawmakers.

Hochul’s pay will grow to $190,000.

In the coming years, the governor’s salary will grow to $250,000 by 2021. The lieutenant governor’s salary will reach $220,000.

The future increases will be tied to “the timely legislative passage of the budget” in the previous year.

The state Senate adopted the resolution after 1 a.m.; the Assembly approved the measure just after dawn.

Lawmakers are also in line to receive another phased-in hike in their pay, now set at $110,000, given the budget being approved in a “timely” manner at the start of the state’s fiscal year.

A group of Republican lawmakers late last night announced a legal challenge to the pay panel’s findings, which also capped the amount of money lawmakers can earn outside of the Legislature.

An April Fool’s Day Budget

From the Morning Memo:

One might argue that the joke’s on New Yorkers this year. 

Over the weekend, legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached a $175 billion budget deal – a fact announced via a very early morning press release from the governor’s office. Reporters awoke to find said release in their emails, which they were prodded to read by tweets from members of the governor’s press office.

Sleepy-eyed reporters read through the announcement, and dutifully wrote up the bare bones details, though when some headed to the state Capitol, it quickly became clear that a number of last-minute details had yet to be finalized.

They – and rank-and-file lawmakers – waited around until those details got hashed out behind closed doors. By the time Sunday rolled around, the deal was finally done, and with the ink not yet dry on the final product, lawmakers begin the arduous task of debating and passing the 2019-2020 budget.

On a Sunday. When almost no one, except various special interests, advocates, lobbyists and members of the media, was paying an iota of attention.

The three-day aging period usually necessary to make sure lawmakers have time to actually read what they’re voting on before they vote, was circumvented – as usual – by messages of necessity issued by the governor. 

And, thanks to the fact that they got it done more or less in a timely way, though not necessarily by the stroke of midnight, they all qualified for the next bump in their salaries, which for state lawmakers is $10,000. 

This is not to say that there isn’t some goods stuff in the budget.

Environmentalists are happy with the plastic bag ban, though they aren’t thrilled it also includes a paper bag tax from which counties can opt out if they want.

There’s more money for public schools, though, again, not as much as advocates – not to mention the Board of Regents – had sought.

There’s a congestion pricing system for Manhattan, with carve outs on certain bridges and for certain drivers and cash for upstate, too. This will be funded in part through a real estate transfer tax that’s taking the place of the proposed pied-a-terre tax, which the powerful real estate industry was quick to kill. 

There’s criminal justice reform, though not a full eradication of the cash bail system. (The state’s district attorneys are furious about this portion of the agreement, and have made no secret of that). 

There’s a commission tasked with setting up a statewide public campaign finance system, which again, isn’t what advocates wanted – nor what progressive lawmakers promised, particularly members of the New Democratic majority in the state Senate.

The 2 percent property tax cap is being made permanent. 

As for that new Senate majority…

Despite all lawmakers’ saber-rattling throughout the start of the session, and despite their willingness to pass legislation – much of which the governor included in his executive budget proposal – and despite their tough talk about drawing lines in the sand on various issues (like education aid, for example), the reality is that Cuomo got pretty much everything he wanted in this deal.  

The constitutional set up of an enormously powerful executive who can more or less single-handedly control the budget process wins again. 

So, while though there was a massive change at the state Capitol this year, with an entirely Democrat-controlled state government, leading some people to think the whole process of budgeting might change, the reality is that is was really the same, secretive process it ever was.

Except arguably more so, given the timing of the whole thing.

Good government reformers had hoped for more. Voters deserve more. Maybe next year, they’ll get it. But this year’s precedent-setting budget doesn’t bode well for that. 

Senate To Back Raising Tobacco-Buying Age

From the Morning Memo:

The state Senate on Monday will take up a bill that would raise the age to buy tobacco products in New York from 18 to 21.

The bill would match efforts by several local governments in recent years to raise the tobacco buying age in their counties to 21, but the measure has stalled in Albany.

Lawmakers’ intent in the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, is to prevent more people from starting to smoke earlier. The move would also match the minimum age for buying alcohol in New York.

The Assembly approved the bill earlier this year.

“The key to reducing the number of smokers in New York is to stop them before they start,” the bill’s memo states. “Raising the smoking age to twenty-one removes cigarettes from high schools and eliminates a popular source of tobacco from underage children.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signaled he would be supportive of a higher tobacco-buying age in the state.

The bill also comes after lawmakers have backed legislation that would crack down on vaping products in New York, which policymakers worry is targeting teens.

The legislation’s likely passage in the Senate comes as the post-budget legislative session is already beginning in Albany this week as lawmakers remain at the Capitol.