Legislature To Take Up Voting Reforms On Monday

State lawmakers are expected to take up on Monday a package of bills and a pair of constitutional amendments designed to make it easier to cast a vote in New York.

The bills will include measures for early voting, combining the state and federal primaries, a bill that would make voting easier for people who have moved and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-old prospective voters, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in an interview on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom.

An additional bill would close the loophole in state election law that allows donors to give an unlimited amount of money through a web of limited liability companies.

The Legislature is also expected to pass constitutional amendments for same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

The bills will be passed a day before the 90th anniversary of the birth of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The legislation is the harbinger of a flurry of activity expected in the coming weeks in Albany as lawmakers take up additional bills to strengthen abortion rights and gun control measures.

“I think in the core the governor’s Democratic principles, Andrea and her Democratic principles and the Assembly and its Democratic principles will be on the same page for most things,” Heastie said.

The measures were included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda for the first 100 days of the new year and is expected to sign them if approved.

“We’re very excited that key voting reforms that are part of the Governor’s 100-day agenda will taken up by the legislature on Monday,” said Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Cuomo. “We look forward to working with them to go further and enact public campaign financing, make Election Day a state holiday and ban corporate contributions once and for all.”

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.

Kolb Sends Assembly Minority Priorities To Governor

From the Morning Memo:

The upcoming state legislative session is supposed to be all about the Democrats.

The left owns both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. However, that isn’t stopping Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb from trying to push forward his own priorities.

The Republican from the Finger Lakes region wrote a letter to the governor this week outlining significant changes in how the state does business that he believes should be considered.

“As we begin 2019, I think it’s absolutely critical the governor takes a long, hard look at some of the programs and policies championed by the Assembly minority conference,” Kolb said.

“Simply put, New Yorkers are paying too much and getting too little in return. In a few days we will, again, begin taking up bills and getting to the people’s business. We must work together toward a leaner, more effective budget and policies that deliver results for New Yorkers in every corner of our great state.”

Among Kolb’s long list of suggestions are some that – at least on their face – Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats have indicated they might actually share. For example, Kolb is advocating for a permanent property tax cap, improvements to infrastructure and funding to fight the ongoing opioid epidemic.

At the same time, the minority leader wants to see dramatic changes to New York’s economic development policy – something likely to meet more resistance, at least from the governor.

“Quite frankly, until Gov. Cuomo commits to developing sound economic policy instead of finger-pointing and pontificating about things he can’t control in Washington D.C., New Yorkers will continue to be denied opportunities for prosperity and will continue to look elsewhere,” Kolb said. “Let’s make 2019 the year New York gets back to where it belongs.”

He also echoed his past calls for all legislative leaders to be included in budget negotiations – something Andrea Stewart-Cousins also sought when she was minority leader.

Now that she’s majority leader, however, she has backed off that stance, saying the three person in a room meetings at which everything gets decided are held at the discretion of the governor, so he gets to decide who’s invited to attend.

Simotas, Biaggi Plan Anti-Sexual Harassment Bills

State lawmakers announced Thursday they are backing a package of bills meant to advance efforts combating sexual harassment in New York.

The half dozen bills are sponsored by Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, a Queens Democrat, and Bronx Democratic Sen.-elect Alessandra Biaggi.

“Countless high profile cases of misconduct and the resulting #MeToo movement have put a spotlight on the pervasive and persistent problem of sexual harassment,” Simotas said. “Fighting sexual harassment is a complex battle and my six bills tackle the scourge of confidentiality agreements, non-disclosure agreements, insufficient statutes of limitations and more.”

Taken together, the measures address a range of issues surrounding harassment and discrimination settlements, as well as employee training.

The legislation includes reforms to confidentiality agreements, requiring that a written waiver explaining the agreement’s consequences and any rights that would be surrendered as a result. Another bill would have employers notify their workers of non-disclosure or non-dispargement stipulations in a contract. A third would extend the time to file a harassment or discrimination complaint with the state’s Human Rights Division.

Another bill would mandate all state workers to complete a bystander intervention training course and another have all harassment and settlement agreements be disclosed to the state attorney general’s office.

Lawmakers also want a bill that would have any confidentiality clause in a settlement arrangement backed by separate compensation in addition to the damages.

Before the societal reckoning surrounding sexual harassment and assault, New York’s state government, including the Legislature, has contended with multiple high-profile cases involving lawmakers or prominent officials.

Biaggi in a September Democratic primary defeated Sen. Jeff Klein, who had been accused of forcibly kissing a then-staffer.

“Across this country, governments, companies, and communities have taken strong action to combat sexual harassment and abuse, and I look forward to making New York a place that makes all people feel safe in their workplaces,” Biaggi said.

The proposals received the backing of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a panel of former state government workers who are survivors or victims of sexual harassment and assault.

“These necessary bills will move us one step closer towards a #HarassmentFreeAlbany, and the Sexual Harassment Working Group is proud to fight for survivor centric-laws with Assemblymember Simotas and Senator Elect Biaggi,” the group said in a statement.

“New York will only have the strongest laws in the nation when survivors and stakeholders share their expertise and institutions have the courage to listen and change. It’s #TimesUp on using survivors as props while shutting us out of the process.”

Heastie Went With His ‘Gut’ For Majority Leader

From the Morning Memo:

When it came time to decide who would be the new Assembly majority leader, Speaker Carl Heastie said he contemplated plenty of candidates.

Ultimately, he went with his “gut” in selecting Assemblywoman Crystal People’s-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, as his second in command. Heastie, during an interview this week on The Capitol Pressroom, said the long-time legislator felt like the right choice.

“Not only has she done extraordinary legislative work, but Crystal and I have been friends since before I was elected to the Assembly, when I first met her back in Buffalo when she was in the county legislature. So we have a very long relationship. It was a tough decision because, like I said, there are many colleagues who would do a fabulous job in this position. You know, but it is difficult sometimes when you gotta pick the best of the best,” he said.

Heastie said he was not asking anybody to be former Majority Leader Joe Morelle, who is now in Congress. However, Peoples-Stokes will have to take on the role of chief advisor and member liaison to the speaker.

“Members go to the majority leader a lot of times before they even come to me on their legislation or things that they want and need. It’s member management, deciding how the calendar works. So it is a tremendous responsibility and as I’ve said I’ve now brought the majority leader in to discuss and make policy decisions and even when we have budget negotiations I have the majority leader right there. And this should be no different with Crystal as well,” Heastie said.

While the role of majority leader has traditionally gone to a member from Upstate, the speaker insisted every part of New York is important to him regardless of his choice. Still, he admitted there is an added benefit that Peoples-Stokes is from Buffalo.

He said he hopes it gives constituents “north of Westchester” confidence the Assembly is not just focusing on New York City and Long Island.

Heastie Says Assembly To Consider Procurement Reform

Assembly lawmakers will consider taking up the issue of how contracting and procurement of state economic development spending is done, Speaker Carl Heastie said Tuesday in a radio interview.

The reform is being discussed in the context of a pay commission’s determination that state lawmakers will see a phased-in hike in their salary for the first time in 20 years, but coupled with a limit to outside income and an end to most stipends for leadership posts.

The changes have rankled Heastie and other lawmakers who have argued the pay commission’s purview was limited to compensation.

“I think that’s a discussion we will have. I said I always wanted to have the governor as part of the discussion,” Heastie said in the interview with WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom. “But if he refuses to engage us, you can’t just say: reform yourself Legislature but everything in my world is perfect, when we can all see that everything in the Governor’s world is not perfect.”

Heastie said it was “curious” that reforms for pay would be limited to the Legislature and not the executive branch. The commission’s report also backed pay increases for the governor and his cabinet. Cuomo’s pay raise would be subject to a joint resolution of the Legislature, but is not linked to reforms like an outside income cap.

“God knows the Governor has had issues in his office,” Heastie said. “But, yet only the Legislature was told you have to reform the way you do business.”

A former close aide to the governor, Joe Percoco, is facing prison time after he was convicted of accepting bribes and a low-show job for his wife in exchange for rigged economic development contracts.

Heastie was also critical of subsequent phased-in salary increases linked to the passage of budgets by April 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year. The arrangement gives Cuomo more power over the shape of the budget talks.

The move puts a “budget gun to the Legislature’s head.”

“So now the Governor can load up everything he wants, and if the Legislature wants to take a stand, they’ll be threatened not to get a pay raise,” Heastie said. “People should be very concerned. I understand the Legislature had issues and problems, and people want reforms and things like that, but policy decisions were not to be done by this commission. But they took it upon themselves, I think with some prompting from the governor and the editorial board.”

The Legislature’s pay is set to increase from $79,500 to $110,000 on Jan. 1. Subsequent increases will be in $10,000 increments stopping at $130,000 in the coming years.

For now, lawmakers are not planning to return to the Capitol to block the raises and reforms from taking effect, Heastie said.

Sources: Nolan Departing Ed Committee Chair Post

Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, an outspoken and passionate Queens Democrat, will be departing the Education Committee chairmanship to take the position as deputy speaker in the coming session, multiple sources at the state Capitol confirm.

Nolan will be replaced as Education Committee chair – a position she has held since 2006 and was given by former Speaker Sheldon Silver – by Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, who, like the current speaker, Carl Heastie, is a Bronx Democrat.

Nolan and Heastie memorably clashed back in 2015 when they both vied for the speakership after Silver was forced to give it up due to the fact that he was facing federal corruption charges. Nolan was the only woman in the running for the position, and she stuck it out longer than the other contenders, even as it became increasingly clear that Heastie was quickly locking up the support necessary to win the leadership fight.

In the end, however, Nolan conceded, noting the historic nature of both her candidacy and Heastie’s – he’s the first African American speaker – and said that she was gratified to “have put at least a scratch in the glass ceiling for women.”

Sources rejected the suggestion that Nolan’s departure from the Education Committee was due to some long-simmering feud between herself and Heastie, saying she had decided she had served long enough and wanted a break.

The change also comes as most committee chairs – and many leadership posts – are poised to lose the stipends they carry known in Albany parlance as “lulus” if the recommendation of the pay compensation commission goes through. But since the Education Committee position and the deputy speakership are in line to lose their lulus, it’s hard to see how Nolan might gain by this change.

Under the proposal, the Assembly Democrats would have only five posts that carry lulus: speaker, majority leader, speaker pro tempore, and the chairs of the Ways and Means and Codes committees. (That last one is the subject of much debate and speculation, as Ken Lovett reported this morning).

Also, as of last week, the commission’s proposal, which also would dramatically limit lawmakers’ ability to earn outside income, while boosting their salaries to make them the highest paid state legislators in the nation, is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Government Justice Center.

This change in the Assembly Democrats’ line-up comes at a time when the Senate Education Committee will also be under new leadership. Incoming Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins recently announced Sen. Shelley Mayer, of Yonkers, would be taking the reigns of that committee after its current occupant, Republican Sen. Carl Marcellino, was defeated by James Gaughran in November as part of the blue wave that swept the GOP out of the majority.

Peoples-Stokes Named Assembly Majority Leader

Democratic Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes was appointed the next majority leader of the state Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie on Monday announced.

She is the first woman to hold the post.

Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo lawmaker, replaces Democrat Joe Morelle of the Rochester area who was elected to the House of Representatives in November.

“Serving alongside Crystal Peoples-Stokes, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how hard she works for the people of Buffalo and for families across our state,” Heastie said. “Crystal is a trusted colleague who I have known for many years, and her experience and dedication to improving the lives of all New Yorkers is why I know she will make an ideal partner in leading the Assembly Majority. Crystal is widely respected by her colleagues and I am proud to appoint her as the next Majority Leader of the People’s House.”

The job of majority leader, which involves managing the day-to-day operations and floor debates of the Assembly when lawmakers are in session, has traditionally gone to an upstate or western New York lawmaker to provide regional balance.

“I am proud and honored that Speaker Heastie has asked me to serve as majority leader for the New York State Assembly,” she said.

“Throughout my career I have fought so that everyone – regardless of zip code, school district, race or background – has access to the tools and opportunities they need to succeed. I look forward to using my new role as majority leader to continue fighting for New York’s families.”

Assembly Open To Holding Sexual Harassment Hearings

From the Morning Memo:

Lawmakers in the state Assembly are open to holding public hearings to discuss sexual harassment in state government and how to develop policies that would address the issue, Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters on Wednesday.

“We’ve never closed the door to hearings,” Heastie said. “We have a new session coming in. We’ll speak about those things.”

Survivors and victims of harassment who have worked in state government have called for hearings on the issue in Albany after lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to a series of anti-harassment measures.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group has said the changes approved earlier this year have fallen short on several fronts, making hearings a preferred method of airing concerns.

Heastie added with reporters the Assembly’s staff had met with several victims in recent weeks to discuss the issue.

“Thank you @CarlHeastie for recognizing the need to open the door and shed light on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment- #MeTooPublicHearings is a crucial step we need to take,” the group wrote on Twitter on Wednesday evening in response to Heastie’s comments.

Heastie: ‘Technical Flaws’ In Pay Commission Report

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Wednesday said there are “technical flaws” in the strings attached to the first legislative pay raise in 20 years by a compensation commission.

Assembly Democrats met for more than two hours in Albany to introduce new members, re-elect Heastie their leader for the new session and discuss the discontent surrounding the pay commission’s report.

Legislative pay will grow from $79,500 in base salary to $130,000 in the next several years, but the commission also determined it could end the stipend system for most leadership jobs, limit outside income and tie the phased-in salary hikes to the passage of budgets by the start of the state’s fiscal year.

“The technical problems that we’ve identified, our staff, our lawyers have identified that we believe we’re now going to have to fix,” Heastie told reporters after the meeting.

It’s not clear for now how lawmakers will tackle this, however. Heastie did not commit to the likely difficult job of holding a special session of both the Senate and Assembly before the end of the year to overturn the pay commission’s recommendations.

“The Legislature always has the ability to fix,” he said. “That’s why democracy is great. But those are things we have to decide. We haven’t decided any of that. This was just the first briefing for members to understand there were some deeply technical flaws in this report.”

Lawmakers also remain miffed by the commission backing a pay increase for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose own salary will grow to $250,000 and is not tied to similar restrictions, such as an outside income limit. Cuomo’s cabinet members, commissioners who head state departments, are also set to increase.

Cuomo’s pay raise is not tied to “performance” as well, such as the on-time budget, but kicks in with a joint resolution of the Senate and Assembly.

“They took all the stipulations off the governor and the commissioners,” Heastie said.