Senate Democrats Plan Fundraiser For April

About an hour before three Democratic state lawmakers criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo for holding a high-dollar fundraiser this month, the campaign arm of the Senate Democratic conference blasted out an email invitation for a fundraising event in April.

The top ticket went for the same price as Cuomo’s event earlier this month at the St. Regis Hotel: $25,000.

Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Jessica Ramos, along with Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, criticized Cuomo on Wednesday afternoon in an impromptu press conference for holding his fundraising in the middle of the budget negotiations.

The lawmakers said the fundraiser was an example of how the state needs a system of publicly financed campaigns, a provision that has stalled in the budget talks. Cuomo has included the public financing provision in his budget; Assembly Democrats have expressed concerns with the effect the measure would have in an era of super PAC spending.

Holding fundraisers during budget season in Albany — a roughly three-month period that runs from January to the end of March — is a common practice.

And the flare up is leading both Democrats in the Legislature elected on a promise of reducing the influence of deep-pocketed special interests in Albany and the Cuomo administration to accuse each other of hypocrisy.

“Its like my twitter account and my inbox lived in different universes,” said a source who received the Senate Democrats’ fundraising invitation. “It’s clear they didn’t think this though and how it could reflect badly on their leaders and their fellow legislators.”

The good-government group NYPIRG tracked more than 100 fundraisers held in Albany by lawmakers a stone’s throw from the Capitol, including an event held for Ramos.

Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to Cuomo, on Thursday morning tweeted an invitation to a fundraiser organized by Biaggi in February.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s fundraiser is scheduled for April 18, with tickets ranging from $1,000 to $25,000. While the state budget could be decided by then, the invitation was released just as the finishing touches are being put on the spending plan.

Advocates Seek Automatic Voter Registration Change In Budget

From the Morning Memo:

A coalition of advocacy groups on Thursday are releasing a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the top legislative leaders in the Senate and Assembly urging them to enact a “back-end” system for automatically registering voters.

The groups, which include AVR NOW, Demos, Center for Popular Democracy, Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, want the change included in the finalized state budget deal.

Having a “back-end” registration system is a more reliable method of separating out non-citizens, limits the possibility of error and drawing in harder-to-reach communities such as low-income New Yorkers and communities of color.

We want to help make the voting process more accessible by eliminating the barriers keeping millions of New Yorkers from exercising their civic duty,” they wrote in the letter to Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

“We urge you to ensure that a robust back-end AVR measure with strong safe harbor provisions, and continued support through an AVR Task Force, passes this year. We know that no legacy could be more powerful than one that ensures citizens from every corner of New York’s diverse population can participate in our democracy.”

The state budget is due to pass by Sunday.

Lawmakers, Good-Government Advocates Make Last-Minute Push For Funding Early Voting

An 11th hour push was made Wednesday to have the state pick up the $17 million tab for early voting in the state budget as a deal on the spending plan may be eminent.

“New York cannot starve the state and county Boards of Elections of necessary funding to run secure and accessible elections,” said Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner. “The Senate and the Assembly have already put a combined $44 million in their one house budgets to cover the cost of early voting, electronic pollbooks, and election administration. The Governor cannot cut funding while adding new responsibilities. It’s time he gets on board, or else New York will continue to rank among the worst in the country for election reform.”

Lawmakers earlier this year approved legislation that allow for a system of early voting to be in place. But county governments would be on the hook to pay for the measure unless the state funds the provision in the budget.

“For many New Yorkers, voting on Election Day is an obstacle that means being late to work or sacrificing pay,” said Sen. Jessica Ramos. “We must include funding for early voting in this year’s budget to ensure that we are breaking down barriers to participation.”

Early voting had been an early victory for the new Democratic majority in the state Senate this year, which had sought several bills designed to make it easier to vote.

Senate Health Chair Monitoring Measles Outbreak

Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera in a statement on Monday evening said he would be monitoring the measles outbreak in Rockland County following an emergency declaration.

“It is with great concern that I am following the decision made by Rockland County authorities to declare a countywide state of emergency due to a serious measles outbreak that has affected more than 150 residents in the last few months,” Rivera said.

“I am already in communication with authorities at the NYS Department of Health and made them aware of my concerns about potential public health and safety issues that an outbreak of such gravity can bring. As the Chair of the Senate Health Committee, I will continue to monitor this situation and strongly believe that our state needs to look closely at how we can prevent any further outbreaks.”

The emergency declaration by the county on Monday came after it was found that more than 80 percent of the measles cases were for children under the age of 18 who had not received the vaccine.

The emergency will ban children under 18 from being in public places.

“Effective at the stroke of midnight tonight, March 27th, anyone who is under 18 years of age and is unvaccinated against the measles will be barred from public places until the declaration expires in 30 days or until they receive their first shot of MMR,” said County Executive Ed Day.

Caucus Calls To Fill Parole Board Vacancies

From the Morning Memo:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was urged in a letter sent this week by the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus in the Legislature to fill seven vacancies on the state’s 19-member Parole Board.

“Such staffing levels leads to repeated postponements and shorter interviews, less time for individualized evaluations of parole applicants and their files, and other administrative challenges,” they wrote in the letter. “These conditions have devastating consequences for incarcerated New Yorkers, as many seeking parole are aging and infirm and cannot afford to wait any longer for their appearances.”

The lawmakers add that with the board understaffed, it’s led to two commissioners conducting interviews as opposed to panels composed of three commissioners, allowing for a majority vote.

“Understaffing results in commissioners who are overworked and unable to take time off or go on leave for fear of further burdening their colleagues,” the letter stated. “Earlier this year, two of the Board’s
commissioners went on unexpected medical leave, leaving only ten commissioners responsible for the work of a Board designed to carry nineteen.”

The letter comes as lawmakers and Cuomo are negotiating changes to the state’s criminal justice laws such as ending cash bail for misdemeanor charges, changing discovery laws for access to evidence and ensuring a speedy trial.

Cuomo has called for the measures to be included in a final budget agreement due on Sunday; lawmakers have signaled they want to pass the bills with an agreement outside of the state budget.

Letter – Parole Vacancies by Nick Reisman on Scribd

After NJ Failure, Advocates Hold Out Hope For Marijuana Deal

Advocates for the full legalization of marijuana in New York are not deterred by the failure of the effort in New Jersey as New York lawmakers this week set their budget in place.

“I think all that we learned from Jersey is New York can do it first,” said Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance during a rally at the state Capitol’s War Room. “We can do it first and we can do it better and we are asking our leadership to stand up to that challenge.”

The Drug Policy Alliance, along with those who are seeking to expand the marijuana business in New York, remain hopeful a final deal can be included in the state budget. However, that’s appearing increasingly unlikely as the issue is not currently dominating the budget talks.

At the same time, the failure of the bill in neighboring New Jersey does not provide more incentive for the legislation.

Gov. Andrew Cuuomo has said repeatedly he hopes the marijuana measure would be included in a final deal, but several weeks ago substituted the revenue from sales tax for a property tax surcharge on second homes worth more than $5 million in order to fund mass transit in New York City.

Still, Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance said that with a Democratic majority in the Legislature, the measure can get accomplished in the budget.

“I think that we have the best chance right now, politically, everyone knows is the budget process,” she said. “Right now we feel that kicking the can down the road is not good for us as community members.”

DAs Want Veto For Prosecutorial Conduct Commission, Again

The District Attorneys Association of New York on Tuesday called for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto changes to a commission designed to oversee the state’s prosecutors.

The bill in question is an amendment to the original legislation passed last year creating the conduct commission itself.

The measure was signed into law by Cuomo over the objections of district attorneys who had sought changes. In a signing statement at the time, Cuomo said the legislation would not go into effect until a negotiated amendment was approved in order to satisfy concerns raised by district attorneys.

But the changes did not satisfy the problems the association said it identify, such as the structural qualms over the constitutional separation of DAs.

“The law threatens the independence of District Attorneys, alters the role of our judiciary and intrudes into law enforcement’s performance of its duties while simultaneously violating the due process rights of prosecutors,” said DAASNY President Albany County DA David Soares.

“The stated goal of this legislation is to enhance the review of instances of prosecutorial misconduct. DAASNY welcomes the opportunity to improve the disciplinary system for all those who practice law, while not offending our state’s constitution, interfering with the discretion afforded prosecutors or jeopardizing public safety.”

The call for the veto comes as lawmakers are also debating broader criminal justice law changes as part of the state budget, including whether to end cash bail, changes that are meant to ensure access to a speedy trial and changes to how evidence is accessed in a criminal case.

Public Campaign Financing Supporters Mobilize

From the Morning Memo:

Supporters of creating a system of publicly financed elections are pushing back against efforts to kick the provision out of the state budget.

The New York AFL-CIO on Monday in a statement called on lawmakers to not include a public financing measure in the final budget agreement, questioning the cost of the proposal and uncertainty surrounding the state’s finances.

Advocates quickly swung back. The group Fair Elections New York called it “a drop in the budget bucket” — at most $60 million out of a $175 billion budget plan.

“In recent days, exaggerated cost estimates for a system of public financing of elections have been floated from some corners as attempts to undermine the policy, stall reform and maintain the status quo,” the group said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat running for the party’s presidential nomination, also tweeted her support for the New York measure and linked to an op/ed written in support by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“Public financing of elections is the single best solution to reduce the undue influence of big money in our politics,” she wrote. “And New York could be on the road to #FairElections this week! Hope this passes in the state budget.”

And 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa on Twitter wrote that he disagreed with the AFL-CIO’s position.

“Working people across NY would greatly benefit from having a stronger democracy to build a more just economy across downstate & upstate,” he said.

Advocates had spent Monday meeting directly with state lawmakers on the issue. Still, it’s not clear if the effort will be enough to overcome the skepticism in the state Assembly, where some lawmakers have raised concerns with the effect of independent expenditure committees, or super PACs, and the potential of fines levied under a public campaign financing system.

NYSAC Keeps Eye On Mandates

From the Morning Memo:

The New York State Association of Counties is keeping a watch on how local governments will be effected by the state budget this year, counting the mandates levied by the state in a final potential deal.

The group in a statement Monday effort cheered the efforts by the state Assembly and Senate to restore some funding cuts proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $175 billion budget as well as cost shifts that would impact county governments.

The budget is due to pass by Sunday.

In the Assembly, lawmakers there sought to restore cuts to the aid to municipalities program, which the governor wants to use an expected boost in internet sales tax revenue to cover.

And the Assembly wants to use $7 million to pay for early voting and spend $27 million for electronic poll books and ballot scan devices.

The chamber’s budget included $65 million for repairing roads and bridges damaged by winter storms.

“It is clear that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the members of the Assembly recognize the impact the budget proposal would have on counties, and we appreciate the actions they took in their one house budget bills,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen Acquario.

The Senate took similar steps in its own budget resolution, including $10 million for early voting, a boost in highway improvement spending and $2.5 billion for clean water infrastructure.

“We commend the Senate Majority for responding to county concerns in their one-house budget priorities. The restoration of $60 million in Aid and Incentives to Municipalities (AIM) with State funding protects the integrity of this state program without diverting local taxpayer dollars,” Acquario said.

“Furthermore, the addition of $150 million to the base CHIPS funding and $65 million for Extreme Winter Recovery will help counties maintain and improve local infrastructure.”

Marijuana Stalls For New Jersey, Is New York Next?

A bill that would have legalized marijuana in New Jersey did not advance on Monday, the same week as state lawmakers in New York are considering whether a similar provision would be included in the state budget.

The developments in New Jersey buoyed opponents of commercialized marijuana legalization.

“The pot industry told everyone legalization was inevitable in deep-blue New Jersey and today’s rejection proves them wrong again,” said Smart Approaches to Marijuana’s Kevin Sabet. “Lawmakers in New Jersey heard the pleas of parents, health professionals, law enforcement and others and blocked this bill.”

At the moment, it appears unlikely a marijuana legalization framework will be in a finalized budget deal due on Sunday.

Cuomo in an interview on WAMC on Monday morning suggested he was still trying to make a final deal work by the end of the week.

“We are working to try to get marijuana done,” he said. “It is complex and it’s, the devil is in the details. And I don’t know that it is done for the budget, but if it’s not done after the budget, I believe we get it done after the budget. But if we can get it done in the budget and use the budget as an accelerant for compromise and decision making, even better.”