Women Lawmakers, Advocates Push Voter Reforms

A coalition of women lawmakers, union leaders and good-government advocates are pushing the legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to back sweeping changes to the state’s voting laws.

The hook for the push made this week in Albany is Women’s History Month, commemorating in part the women’s suffrage movement that lead to the passage of the 19th amendment.

“Every New Yorker deserves a democracy that is fair and promotes their full participation,” the group wrote in a letter to Cuomo, Speaker Carl Heastie, Majority Leader John Flanagan and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein. “We need action now. In truth, New York’s trace record in this area is shameful.”

The group is pushing New York to adopt a range of voter system chances, including early voting provisions, which New York has been largely lagging behind most of the country, as well as same-day registration.

“Early voting has become the norm in 34 states, while New York would be in the vanguard joining the 6 states that have automatic registration,” the letter states.

The Republican-led Senate has generally been hesitant to adopt voting changes.

The group wants the changes approved in the state budget, expected to pass by March 31.

Reform Party: Call For Term Limits Vote Or Lose Endorsement

The Reform Party on Wednesday called on state lawmakers to push for a vote on a bill that would set term limits for the Legislature and statewide elected officials or risk losing their endorsement from the newly formed ballot line.

“Senator Griffo and his colleagues sponsoring this legislation understand the impact term limits would have on reducing corruption in government,” said Reform Party Chairman Bill Merrell. “He has been a bright light for reform in New York and we applaud his efforts. Before session wraps for the year, it’s time for the rest of the legislature to tell the public where they stand on term limits by bringing this bill to the floor for an up or down vote. Time is of the essence.”

The bill would set term limits for the Senate and Assembly to six two-year terms. The governor, attorney general and state comptroller would be limited to two, four-year terms.

The party was formed after the 2014 election by Republican nominee Rob Astorino out of the Stop Common Core ballot line.

Amid Investigations, Senators Differ On Campaign Finance Reform

Back in Albany, Senate Democrats today made a renewed push for the closure of a loophole that allows single donors to give unlimited funds through a web of limited liability companies.

It’s a longtime bugaboo for good-government advocates and Democratic lawmakers in Albany and one Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pledged to close even as he has taken advantage of the current arrangement in his own fundraising.

But the push also comes amid swirling scandals on both the state and federal level for both the Cuomo administration and the fundraising activities of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on behalf of Senate Democrats.

De Blasio’s political activities are being scrutinized by federal investigations over the method of helping Senate Democrats take over the chamber in 2014 – namely through a series of massive donations to county party committees, which then disbursed funds on behalf of individual candidates.

Senate Republicans, especially GOP freshman Sen. Terrence Murphy whose own race two years ago was a target of de Blasio’s allies, have blasted de Blasio and the Senate Democrats over the investigation.

And as Democrats sought to once again gain a vote on the LLC loophole bill in the Senate Elections Committee, Murphy sought to address county party transfer by boosting penalties for explicitly aiding candidates through local committees.

“This legislation strengthens the penalties for the BDB Loophole, which is already an illegal act under New York State’s election law,” Murphy said in a statement.

“New Yorkers from all parts of our State are demanding action be taken in light of the allegations tying Mayor de Blasio and the Senate Democrats together through illegally prearranged transfers from county committees to handpicked candidates. This bill will give authorities more teeth to hold law breakers accountable for their actions.”

Democrats, meanwhile, shrugged off the Republican complaints as a diversion from the overarching issue of LLC giving.

“What’s ironic is that for multiple years now the Senate majority has refused to address this issue,” said Sen. Daniel Squadron, one of the main Democratic sponsors of the LLC loophole bill.

“Everything else you’re hearing here is a diversion. Let me be clear, we need to look at our campaign finance laws. But this has risen to a new level in terms of its use and it’s specific linkage to those trials which means we have to deal with this now. This is a simple fix.”

Donations through LLCs have increased over the years, and Democrats were quick to point out their legislation would not bar the entities from political giving. The practice often makes the source of the contributions difficult to track and has enriched campaigns in an era of free spending in politics ushered in by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Still, Republicans have questioned the motivations behind closing the loophole – the result of a decades-old Board of Elections decision – as a way of aiding labor union giving.

Again, Squadron insisted the LLC loophole is a piece of a larger puzzle for reform, and a crucial one.

“Look, there are a lot of other issues around LLCs and a lot of other issues around campaign finance reform, both of which should be looked at,” he said. “In the case of campaign finance reform, my colleagues and I carry a lot of those bills. But the fact that there are other problems must not be an excuse to allow a glaring issue that has been particularly pernicious and particularly linked to corruption.”

Panepinto Proposes Mayoral ‘Input’, Not Full Control

It’s a drastic step that has been successfully implemented in New York City and intermittently considered – but never fully embraced – in cities across upstate: Mayoral control of the public schools. 

With nagging questions over the leadership of the Buffalo Public School District, and some suggesting full mayoral control is the answer, a Buffalo-area state senator has drafted compromise legislation that would give the mayor “input.”

“I think it’s an effort to try and quell the animosities that exist under the present school board configuration,” said Sen. Marc Panepinto.

Four superintendents in five years have tried to turn around the Buffalo Public School District. The most recent person to hold the position, interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie, has lost the confidence of the board of education’s one-seat majority and leaves the post July 1st. 

Infighting among board members over how a new superintendent should be chosen spurred Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes to revive the idea of mayoral control. Panepinto said he was sympathetic to the idea put forward by his fellow Democrat, but feels a full takeover is a step too far.

“From the Assembly delegation that I talked to, from the Upstate Senators, Democratic and Republican that I spoke too, I didn’t really see that there was a stomach for total mayoral control,” he said.

Panepinto’s legislation would allow Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown to appoint two additional at-large board members to the nine-member school board.  The terms would last five years and would need to be confirmed by the Buffalo Common Council.

“I think the City of Buffalo funds the schools to the tune of ten to 15 percent depending on what the state allocation is, so I think it’s appropriate that the mayor have some input on the school board,” the senator said. 

For a majority member of the Buffalo Public School Board, however, this proposal gives away all control. 

“The intent is for the liberal group, connected to the board minority, to stop the implementation of the majority’s agenda,” said Carl Paladino. “Marc Panepinto is an elitist who thinks government control is the answer to every aspect of life.”

Allowing the mayor to appoint two board members could certainly flip the one seat majority. Either way, Paladino believes it would create even more chaos.

“This effort to remove control from a duly elected board is sickening,” he said.

Panepinto’s proposal doesn’t go as far as the full mayoral control bill Peoples-Stokes’ office has said she’s still drafting – an effort that faces an uphill climb in Albany. Buffalo’s Common Council President isn’t ready to endorse either idea at this point. 

“I’m interested in seeing both plans and seeing possibly is there even some working together to bring both plans into fruition in which one gives a little and the other may take away,” Darius Pridgen said.

But mayoral control may be an idea whose time has come, though the New York City measure sunsets in Albany in June, and the Senate Republicans don’t appear inclined to provide any assistance to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would like to see it made permanent. De Blasio unsuccessfully tried to help the Senate Democrats re-take the majority in the 2014 elections, making an enemy of the GOP conference.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he favors a three-year extension of New York City’s mayoral control law, while the Assembly Democrats pushed during the budget battle for seven years. The matter was pushed off into the post-budget session.

As for his proposal, Panepinto thinks it should get a three-year trial, and he says he feels he has already accomplished part of his goal even if the idea goes nowhere in the end.

“I wanted to put something forward to begin the dialogue,” the senator said.

Education Matters

The conversation on education reform in the state Budget appears to have shifted. Sources say last night Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a long talk about some of the governor’s policy proposals and now, finally, there seems to be some movement.

Assembly Democrats conferenced the proposed changes this afternoon, which include taking charter schools out of the discussion. Cuomo had wanted to raise the cap to allow more charters, but as of now that will be taken up at another time – likely later in the session.

The governor also appears to be backing away from his insistence that “failing” schools be placed into a receivership. Democrats staunchly oppose this. Weakening teacher tenure is also on the chopping block – (Cuomo had wanted to make it harder for teachers to gain tenure) – and a formula for teacher evaluations is still being worked out.

Democrats described the overall mood on budget talks as “very different” from the start of this session. No longer is Cuomo taking a “storm-the-beach” approach on his controversial education reforms. Many of those ideas have now been “uncoupled” from the revenue appropriations they were attached to. That paves the way for compromise – not to mention an on-time budget = at least within the the world of Democrats who had loathed the governor’s approach, accusing him of being a bully.

But of course, Republicans still need to come around on ethics if the budget is actually going to be on time.

So, what changed? Well, a couple of things. For one, sources say Cuomo was losing the war against teachers.

First there was the poll last week showing his approval rating at the lowest it has ever been. Then there was the Siena poll that showed the public isn’t really with him on this one. Finally, there are the teachers unions, NYSUT and UFT, whose members successfully painted Cuomo as the enemy of overworked and underpaid teachers.

From the campaign to demonstrate he has spent no time in schools since taking office, to the billboards on the Thruway telling him that he needs to listen to to teachers, it all adds up to a losing battle for the governor.

Not for nothing, but if you are going to take on an entrenched group like the teachers union in this state, you gotta be ready to really go to war. That includes a TV ad blitz, which was noticeably absent in this particular fight.

Cuomo’s buddy across the Hudson, Gov. Chris Christie, successfully turned the public against the NJEA in New Jersey, but he did so after first coming into office in 2010 when his political clout was at its highest. It was also during the great recession when antipathy toward public unions living large on the public dime was at an all-time high.

Then there is the ethics reform piece. Last week, Cuomo successfully pulled Speaker Heastie into the fold on ethics when the Democratic duo announced a two-way agreement that left Senate Republicans on the sidelines. This was immortalized by the hug-heard-round the world.

(This photo appears to have been taken after the two leaders won their field hockey game. They then apparently went back to the mansion and watched “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and shared a good cry. Next week, it’s an all “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Steel Magnolias” marathon. BTW – I’m totally kidding about everything I just wrote in parenthesis…Heastie actually HATES “Steel Magnolias.”)

Once the governor had the Assembly Democrats on his side on ethics reform, he was able to squeeze the Republicans a bit. But, of course, no one gets everything they want. And to bring the Dems on board for ethics meant sacrificing something on education – an issue of massive importance in the Assembly majority conference. Heastie and his members couldn’t live with what Cuomo wanted in terms of ed reform. Cuomo needed ethics to be his top priority following the arrest of former Speaker Sheldon Silver.

It stands to reason that NO ethics reform really has any teeth unless lawmakers and the governor are willing to have the big conversation, which is banning ALL outside income and making the Legislature full time – with a significant pay raise, as good government groups have proposed. But as the great Nick Reisman noted earlier, that pay increase commission Cuomo gave lip service to all those months ago is apparently also out of the budget along with the Dream Act and the EITC.

Q Poll: NYers Back Disclosure From Elected Officials & Their Significant Others

An overwhelming majority of New York voters – 84 percent – support the idea of elected officials bring required to disclose the sources of their outside income and investments, a new Q poll found.

A smaller number, but still a majority of 64 percent, also believe the spouses and girlfriends of those same officials should be required to make public the source and size of their respective incomes. (The poll did not differentiate between legislative and executive disclosure proposals, which is the focus of debate between the governor and the Senate Republicans).

“Follow the money, New Yorkers say,” remarked Q pollster Mickey Carroll. “Overwhelmingly, they want legislators to tell how much they earn. Legislators say spouses and companions of government folks should have to tell all, too. Voters agree.”

Eighty-nine percent of poll respondents said government corruption is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem in the state today, but only 45 percent support Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s threat of holding up this year’s budget in order to force the Legislature’s hand on ethics reform.

Fifty-four percent of voters disapprove of the way Cuomo is handling ethics in government, and 47 percent believe he’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Cuomo might be able to take some solace in the fact that 62 percent of New Yorkers disapprove of the job the Legislature is doing, compared to its 55-28 job approval rating last December.

There is strong support – 76 percent – for the idea that lawmaker convicted of a felony should lose their public pensions – a proposal included in the two-way deal struck by Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, but one that requires a constitutional amendment to achieve. Support for this idea is strong across party, age, gender and regional groups, the poll found.

As for the claim that is widely made by good government groups and left leaning reformers that establishing a public campaign finance system would go a long way toward getting big money out of the political system and reducing corruption, New Yorkers aren’t really on board. Fifty-four precent oppose the creation of such a system for statewide elected officials and the Legislature.

Fifty-seven percent voiced support for a full-time Legislature with a complete ban on outside income, which is what reform advocates and AG Eric Schneiderman have been pushing – a proposal that goes considerably further than the governor wants at this point.

Speaking of Schneiderman, his approval rating is 45-22, while state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli came in at 35-19.

March 19 Q poll on ethics. by liz_benjamin6490

Senate Democrats: Pass Ethics Bills Now, Not In Budget (Updated)

Senate Democrats on Monday unveiled a package of ethics reform legislation that would cap outside income, strengthen disclosure requirements and close a loophole in campaign finance laws that guarantees unlimited contributions from limited liability corporations.

The ethics push comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to push his own ethics overhaul legislation in the budget negotiations – even if it means a late spending plan – which would be the first of his tenure as governor.

“I know the governor is frustrated, we’re frustrated,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat. “I think the most important thing is to make sure the people of New York know the people who they sent to work for them, are actually working for them.”

Should lawmakers and the governor fail to agree to ethics legislation, a shutdown of state government could be triggered.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to hold up the budget for it,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Obviously, a lot of work has to be done. We’re hoping to grease the wheel by supporting the fact that ethics is of paramount importance and has to happen.”

The latest iteration of ethics reform comes after Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver was arrested last month on corruption charges. Silver was forced to resign as speaker of the Assembly – a post he had held since 1994.

Stewart-Cousins at a Capitol news conference said the bills her conference is proposing should not wait for the budget process to be completed, but instead be taken up now.

“We firmly believe that we need to pass these ethics reforms now,” she said. “We need to pass our bills now. It shouldn’t have to be part of the budget conversation at all, to be quite honest.”

Cuomo has fended off criticism that the Silver arrest shows the shutdown of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission was premature, saying the panel worked the way it should have.

The panel was shuttered after Cuomo struck a deal with the Legislature on new ethics and anti-corruption measures in the state budget last year.

Stewart-Cousins this afternoon said the panel’s closure was beside the point.

“I always say had we as the Legislature taken up that charge when it was clearly before us, there would be no need for a Moreland Commission,” she said.

Updated: Senate Republicans weighed in.

“Rather than issue press releases and grandstand, Senate Republicans are working with the Governor and the Assembly to get real results and real reforms that improve our state’s ethics and disclosure laws,” said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif.

Senate Dems To Push Ethics Legislation

From the Morning Memo:

With public corruption and ethics once again moving to the front burner in Albany, Senate Democrats in the coming days plan a renewed push of a their package of ethics legislation in the chamber.

Measures the conference will highlight this week include bills aimed at restricting outside income and disallowing the practice of funneling unlimited funds through limited liability corporations.

The conference plans to back measures that would strip public employees convicted on corruption charges of their pensions, as well as new regulations for the use of campaign funds.

The legislation comes after the arrest of longtime (and now former) Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, resigned his post last week, paving the way for Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie, who has vowed to reform the chamber, to become the first African-American speaker in New York history.

Meanwhile, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, of Queens, was convicted last week on charges that he sought to bribe his way onto into the 2013 NYC mayor’s race on the GOP ballot line.

Smith lost his seat last year after losing a Democratic primary to former NYC Councilman LeRoy Comrie.

Still, a cloud hangs over both chambers — and political parties.

Democratic Assemblyman Bill Scarborough is under indictment for the misuse of campaign funds.

Republican Sen. Tom Libous faces a charge of lying to the FBI.

Democratic Sen. John Sampson, who was tossed from his conference, is awaiting trial for allegedly siphoning funds from a escrow account he controlled.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, is reportedly under investigation by the US attorney for his outside income, as well.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called on lawmakers to pass his own five-point ethics package, which focuses on restricting outside income. Cuomo has said he would hold out for a strong ethics package, even if it meant the passage of a late budget, which would be his first during his time as governor.

Cuomo To Legislature: Pass Ethics Reform In Budget Or Shut Down Gov’t (Updated)

Delivering his first significant speech since the corruption scandal that took down soon-to-be-former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Gov. Andrew Cuomo today laid out a reform agenda and delivered an ultimatum to the Legislature: Pass what he has proposed as part of the 2015-16 budget, or risk a government shutdown.

“I will not sign a budget that does not have an ethics plan as outlined in my proposal,” the governor said while speaking at NYU Law School this afternoon. “…This in all probably means we will not have a fifth, on-time, amicable budget.”

Cuomo invoked his late father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, saying he had “battled the dragon of corruption for 12 years,” but the dragon “survived.” Following a string of state lawmakers going to prison after being found guilty on corruption charges, capped by the latest charges brought against Silver by US Attorney Preet Bharara, the time has come to restore the public’s trust in government and prove it can be part of the solution – not just part of the problem, the governor said.

To do that, Cuomo is proposing a five-point plan that starts with what he said would be the strongest campaign disclosure rules in the nation – including revealing client lists from outside businesses, which he said are not protected, as lawmakers have claimed in court. “You’ve heard the phrase follow the money? We’re creating a new phrase: explain the money,” he said.

The governor also called for a constitutional amendment that would end public pensions for elected officials found guilty of wrongdoing, an overhaul of the legislative per diem system, strict new rules prohibiting the personal use of political funds , (including, presumably, using this cash to pay for legal representation, which the governor himself is going), and enactment of a host of campaign finance fixes like closing the LLC loophole, (which he himself has used to great effect), lower contribution limits and creation of a publicly financed campaign system.

UPDATE: Some of this – like public campaign finance and the LLC loophole closure – is already in the governor’s executive budget proposal. The rest of it will be included in his 30-day amendments, according to a Cuomo spokesman.

Cuomo has called for these things before, though one new element was a dicussuion of fully banning outside income for state lawmakers – something that Congress does, but no other state has yet attempted. The governor said the “cleanest” solution to end the sort of corruption that has run rampant in Albany would be to make the Legislature full time (and presumably also up lawmakers’ pay substantially), but he stopped just short of formally making that proposal, opting for the full disclosure route instead.

The governor tried unsuccessfully late last year to tie many of these reform ideas to a legislative pay increase that many lawmakers – especially the downstaters – desperately wanted after going since January 1999 without a boost in their base salary of $79,500.

That reform-for-pay trade was thought to be the governor’s maximum leverage at the time. But now he’s upping the ante still further by telling lawmakers they must pass them as part of the 2015-16 budget or risk a government shutdown.

In short: If there is no budget deal that includes the reforms for which he has called by the April 1 deadline, Cuomo will follow the lead of former Gov. David Paterson and force his plans down the Legislature’s throat by inserting his budget into the extender legislation required to keep the government running.

Cuomo acknowledged that the Legislature will likely balk at accepting the reform plan he has laid out. But he said risking his the first late budget of his gubernatorial tenure will be worth it.

The governor said he is “OK” with the idea of the first late state budget on his watch, explaining: “It is more important to me to prove we have corrected the problem and restored the trust, then just check another box.” The goal, Cuomo said, is to make the public believe that state government can be both functional and “trustworthy” – two adjectives that have been mutually exclusive during his first four years in office.

Though he pledged when he first ran for governor in 2010 to clean up Albany, the pace of legislative corruption scandals has not slowed on Cuomo’s watch. If anything, they have perhaps accelerated, thanks to the aggressive efforts of Bharara, who seems intent on changing the culture at the Capitol by sending one lawmaker after another to prison until they are willing to make the changes necessary to stem the bleeding.

Bharara has been critical of Cuomo’s decision to end his corruption-busting Moreland Commission before it completed its work, taking up with the commission left off and reportedly looking into the details of why, exactly, the governor agreed to shut it down in exchange for a modest reform deal with legislative leaders – including Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, whose outside income has also now drawn the downstate prosecutor’s attention.

UPDATE2: Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is the first legislative leader out with a response to Cuomo’s speech. In short: She likes what she hears, and thinks it’s about time the governor start holding the Republicans’ feet to the fire.

““The Senate Democrats have been advocates for cleaning up Albany and restoring the public’s trust in our state government,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I am pleased that Governor Cuomo is taking the ethics reforms initiatives we have championed for and will now ensure that the Senate Republicans finally have to address these common sense measures.”

NYPIRG issued a statement saying Cuomo’s promise that he will do all he can to get some reform at the Capitol is “a welcome response to Albany’s seemingly endless scandals.” But, the good government asked: Where’s the teeth?

“(T)he governor did not describe any significant changes in the oversight and enforcement structure,” NYPIRG said. “Without changes to the ethics and campaign finance systems, no real changes will occur. The best laws are only as good as their administration. New York cannot continue to rely on the US Attorney’s office to walk the ethics and campaign finance ‘beat’ in Albany.”

Heastie Outlines Ethics Rules Proposals

Carl Heastie, the Bronx Democrat in line to become the next speaker of the state Assembly, outlined a trio of ethics rules changes on Monday for the chamber he hopes to lead.

“I believe we must seize this opportunity for reform, and enact the type of lasting change that will make the Assembly more open, transparent, and accountable to the voters,” Heastie said in a statement.”I look forward to working with my colleagues to develop and implement reforms like these, and others, so that the Assembly can regain the voters trust and start a new chapter.”

Heastie pledged to enacted an Office of Ethics and Compliance that would provide “guidance” to lawmakers on existing income and ethics rules.

At the same time, a three-person team of lawmakers would search for an executive director who is not a member of the Assembly be a “preeminent expert” on ethics laws.

Heastie also pledged to create new accountability and openness on per diem expenses, and promised to work with the office of state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (a former assemblyman from Long Island) on new oversight.

Heastie reiterated a vow to resign as Bronx County Democratic Committee chairman, and also repeated his support for capping outside income for lawmakers.

Heastie’s own per diem use as well his campaign finance spending has come under scrutiny in recent days as his rise to the position of speaker appeared to be a done deal. He promised to “consider proposals” that would create a full-time Legislature and completely ban outside income.

The Bronx assembylman’s focus on ethics changes comes after a group of reform-minded Democrats in the chamber have pushed speaker candidates to backa host of reforms that would decentralize some of the power of the speakership and give more clout to rank-and-file members.

Democrats are due to meet privately today to discuss when to hold a leadership vote to replace Sheldon Silver as speaker, who resign that post this evening at 11:59 p.m. Heastie and his supporters say the vote should be held ASAP – as early as tomorrow – and not on Feb. 10, which is the date the conference agreed on last week.

However, since some less-than-favorable stories have come out about Heastie over the past several days, several members and good government advocates are suggesting it would be better to take the time to fully vet the candidates (Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, of Queens, is still in the running) and provide some openess to the process of selecting someone to replace Silver. In the meantime, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, of Rochester, would serve as the interim speaker until a permanent replacement for Silver is selected.