State Budget

Johns Calls Pay Commission ‘Backdoor’ Way Of Getting A Raise

A Rochester-area State Assemblyman says if his colleagues want a pay raise they should draft legislation and vote on it.  Webster Republican Mark Johns not only criticized the way the pay raise commission was approved he called the bill flawed.

“We passed the bill at 2:30-3:00 in the morning and there’s not a lot of daylight then and people aren’t necessarily paying attention.  The problem I have with a pay commission is the people on the commission will be appointed by politicians to decide how big of a raise the politicians should get,” said Johns.

About a week ago the idea of a pay raise commission for state-elected officials looked like a dead issue.  The commission was included in a last minute budget bill approved by the Senate and the Assembly.

“I believe the constitution says that we have to vote ourselves a raise, which will not take effect until the next legislature is seated, and I believe that’s the correct way to do it.  I think if people want a raise they make their argument, like they would with any other bill, and then have an up or down vote on it so you can see how your legislators are going to vote on the increase,” Johns said.

As Nick previously detailed, the new panel is actually being rolled into the commission created in 2011 that determines whether state judges should receive a boost in pay.  As Johns noted, any pay raise for the Senate and Assembly would not take effect until the next Legislature is seated, or Jan 1, 2017.

“I got elected in 2010 and I took a pledge not to vote for a pay increase for the duration that I’ll be down there.  I think that people would like to see a lot of things voted on and a pay increase is not one of them.  We don’t vote on term limits which upwards of ninety percent of the people want.  We’re going to do a backdoor way of getting a pay increase and I don’t think that’s going to be real popular when it gets out,” said Johns.

Increasingly frustrated with the legislative process, Johns teamed up with Democratic Sen. Diane Savino last year to introduce the SOLE act.  The Sensible Opportunity for Legislative Equality bill would allow each member to bring a bill that’s been discharged from committee to the floor for a vote at least once during a two-year legislative session.

A version of the bill was included in an Assembly Minority ethics reform package and did not make it into the budget. Johns is hopeful the idea will still be considered before the end of the legislative session.

“I’ll be honest with you we talk about all kinds of equality: marriage equality, pat equality, gender equality, I think legislative equality would go a long way.  We vote on a lot of issues down there and the red button does work.  There’s no reason a minority member or a majority member shouldn’t be allowed to bring up a good idea for discussion and have an up or down vote and if you don’t like the bill or the contents vote it down,” Johns added.


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.

Strength In Numbers

ICYMI from the Morning Memo today:

Upstate Democrats’ numbers have been steadily increasing in the Assembly majority conference, but they remain outnumbered by the downstate members, who continue to control much of the agenda in the Legislature’s lower house.

Case in point: The downstaters and Democratic party leaders in the five boroughs recently used their clout to select a new speaker, Carl Heastie, who hails from the Bronx, over Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, a Rochester Democrat.

A handful of upstate members have realized they’re likely to have better luck at seeing results on their priorities, which often differ from those of their more liberal downstate counterparts, if they band together – much like the black and Latino members have done by creating their own caucus.

Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, a Utica Democrat, says a small group of upstaters – maybe five or six who hail mostly from urban areas – started meeting last year to strategize about education funding.

This year, Brindisi said, the number has grown to about 15 or so members from several regions – including the Upper Hudson Valley, Capital District and Buffalo – who have met several times so far to discuss a wide range of topics. They’re currently holding their meetings in the office of Central NY Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli.

Brindisi was reluctant to call this loose coalition a formal “delegation,” noting the formation of such a group was frowned upon under the former speaker.

“Any time you had large groups of member meeting, it certainly was cause for concern,” Brindisi recalled. “We lost out on certain things because of that.”

But the new speaker, Carl Heastie, doesn’t seem to have a problem with the idea of Democratic conference members forming special interest groups.

In fact, several of these coalitions formed during the brief but intense fight for the speakership after Assemblyman Sheldon Silver’s corruption scandal cost him the post, and Heastie even met with some of them. (The newer members, the so-called “reform” caucus, etc.)

Brindisi said the upstaters have broadened their focus to include transit – “something we all agree could use more funding” – and addressing the needs of immigrant/refugee populations that have popped up in certain urban centers.

“We don’t want this to look like a downstate versus upstate effort; it’s not,” the assemblyman said. “It’s just that we have common issues – particularly in our urban areas – and we realized that when we work on the budget, it’s helpful for members to work together and advocate as one voice.”

Who Blinks First?

Today is March 4. Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his 30-day budget amendments, which jammed the Legislature by stuffing ever more policy (particularly ethics reforms) into appropriations bills, on Feb. 21 – almost two weeks ago.

So far, neither the Senate nor the Assembly has introduced Cuomo’s amendments – a move required before they can be formally considered by state lawmakers.

As Newsday’s Mike Gormley reported, the Assembly issued a statement Sunday night pledging to get the introduction process started, but gave no timeline for doing so. And, as of last night, the chamber still had yet to take action.

In a statement given to Gormley over the weekend and re-issued to me last night, Mike Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, said the amendments would “of course” be printed “because the Constitution requires us to act on them as submitted.”

“We are reviewing them with members,” Whyland continued, “and we continue to negotiate in good faith on all of the issues – including the ethics reform package. We will be meeting with the governor to further discuss the budget this week.”

Sources familiar with the Senate Republicans’ thinking say they are holding back on introductions because they’re reviewing “all options” in response to the governor’s hardball budget tactics – including a possible lawsuit revisiting the landmark 2004 Court of Appeals decision on the division of budget power between the executive and legislative branches.

That decision is commonly referred to in Albany as “Silver v. Pataki,” and it’s actually the result of two separate cases brought against then-Gov. George Pataki by the Assembly, which believed he was overstepping his executive powers by inserting policy into appropriations bills, over which the Legislature has very little control.

I wrote about this issue for Capital NY a few weeks back, speaking to a number of key players in the Silver v. Pataki cases – including former Judge Robert Smith, who wrote the plurality opinion under which the Capitol is currently operating.

Most legal experts and Capitol observers agree the decision is ripe for revisitation, especially since the judges determined there is indeed a line over which the governor might step when it comes to using the budget as a policy-making vehicle. The trouble is, the court declined to define where that line is.

Most agree that the governor’s insertion of ethics reform – specifically tying per diem changes and disclosure requirements to the state comptroller’s budget – is a stretch of even the limited boundaries defined in Silver v. Pataki.

Just today, Daily News columnist Bill Hammond wrote of the “dangerous precedent” being set by Cuomo’s use of his sweeping budgetary authority, raising concerns that future governors could “easily” abuse this power.

The problem is, challenging the governor’s ethics reform push in court would be terrible for the Legislature from an optics standpoint.

The scandal-weary public is highly unlikely to understand the esoteric argument about restoring a balance of power in Albany – especially when that involves giving more of a say to the Legislature, of which most New Yorkers don’t have the highest opinion these days.

Cuomo is well aware of this, and he also believes he’s on sound legal footing, having consulted with a number of attorneys – including Pataki’s former counsel, Jim McGuire, who is widely acknowledged as the architect behind the then-governor’s winning strategy in Pataki v. Silver.

The Assembly is no happier than the Senate with Cuomo’s budget bullying, but seems a bit less anxious to challenge his authority here – perhaps due to the fact that it is still reeling from the change in leadership and trying to get its sea legs under the new speaker, Carl Heastie.

Generally speaking, lawmakers are trying to determine whether it’s worth going to war with Cuomo now, or waiting to see if he’s really serious about being willing to risk a late budget – and a government shutdown – to get what he wants in ethics reform.

In the past, Cuomo has been willing to make deals, calling half a loaf a victory. But if he deviates from his track record this time and refuses to submit new, re-negotiated budget bills before the April 1 deadline, the Legislature could be in trouble.

Stewart-Cousins: Ahem, What About Me? (Updated)

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is (not surprisingly) displeased by the fact that she and her fellow minority leader, Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb, are being left out of the backroom budget talks that again include IDC Leader Jeff Klein, even though he no longer has a power-sharing deal with the Senate Republicans.

After the governor revealed at his Red Room cabinet meeting that the four-men-in-a-room budget talks established when the IDC and GOP split control of the chamber would continued, Stewart-Cousins responded by suggesting the time has come to get rid of this secretive negotiation process altogether.

“As we discuss ways to clean up Albany and reform state government, a perfect place to start is the much maligned three/four men in a room​ budgetary process,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “In the past we had been led to believe that membership was based on constitutional roles and not simply the whims of the governor.”

“Since membership has now been expanded, I would hope all legislative conference leaders will be ​included, giving all New Yorkers a voice in the budget. The more diversity and light we can shine on this process the better it is for everyone.”

After the GOP won its slim – but complete – majority in the 2014 elections, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Klein renegotiated the relationship between their two conferences so that it’s something less than their previous status, but something more than the minority-majority relationship between Skelos and Stewart-Cousins.

Cuomo said Klein in being included in this year’s leaders meetings – the first of which is taking place right now – due to his “relationship” with Skelos, and the fact that he can deliver the votes of his five-member conference, which gives the GOP some breathing room in the closely-divided chamber.

The three men in a room process was the subject of some very public criticism by US Attorney Preet Bharara, who mocked the practice in a speech delivered the day after the arrest on corruption charges of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and said it is the root of Albany’s many problems.

“I have a little bit of a hard time getting my head around this concept of three men in a room,” Bharara said while speaking at New York Law School. “Maybe it’s just me. I’m an immigrant from India, which is overpopulated, so for me, it’s like a billion men in a room.”

“…Why three men? Can there be a woman? Do they always have to be white? How small is the room that they can only fit three men? Is it three men in a closet? Are there cigars? Can they have Cuban cigars now? After a while, doesn’t it get a little gamey in that room?”

Bharara told The Buffalo News in a subequent interview that he keeps the book “Thee Men in a Room” by former Sen. Seymour Lachman on his desk and has met with the ex-Democratic lawmaker to discuss the frustrations he experienced while serving in Albany.

UPDATE: Stewart-Cousins is getting some backup here from Citizen Action of NY. The organization’s executive director, Karen Scharff, released the following statement:

“It’s hard to understand ​Governor Cuomo’s ​reasons for excluding the only woman legislative leader from a seat at the decision-making table. Leader Stewart-Cousins has been a champion for New York’s working families and ​is the leader of 24 senators while Senator Klein only leads 5. Governor Cuomo should open the process so that the voices of all leaders, and the voters that they represent, can be heard.”

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.”

Where Will Cuomo Cut?

From the Morning Memo:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will propose his fifth state budget today, and sources say he plans to once keep spending under a 2 percent increase from last year.

The self-imposed spending cap has been a hallmark of every Cuomo budget proposal since 2011, his first year in office.

And the 2 percent cap has stuck: State lawmakers have agreed to work within the framework of Cuomo’s initial spending figure while also enacting four budgets on time.

Aside from controlling costs, the cap is a useful political tool when Cuomo touts the cap on local property tax increases, even if it is an apples and oranges comparison: If the state can stay within the bounds of a 2 percent increase in spending, then local governments and school districts should be able to do the same when it comes to the amount they collect in taxes.

But in a real way, controlling spending is linked to property taxes: Cuomo wants to use the planned surplus to help pay for a $1.66 billion property-tax relief plan that is his administration’s version of the circuit-breaker program, which ties relief to a household’s income.

Cuomo’s cap on spending this budget year will have to withstand a rather large test, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, given that he’ll have to find $1.8 billion in savings this year in order to balance the budget. The need for savings grows to a projected $2.6 billion next year and then $4 billion ahead of the 2017-18 fiscal year

Namely, spending on major cost-drivers for the state – education aid and Medicaid – are growing alongside pensions and debt costs.

“Although school aid is statutorily capped at the annual growth rate of personal income, the projected increase for next fiscal year is a much larger 7.5 percent,” the budget watchdog wrote.

Even as Cuomo talks of using a planned surplus based on these 2 percent caps, such goals are currently premature, the CBC found.

“Despite reported surpluses, under current projections, New York’s real baseline financial plan includes budget gaps expected to exceed $4 billion in two years,” the group wrote. “Savings in every area should be under consideration before new commitments are made.”

Add Valesky To ‘Syracuse Billion’ Push

Sen. David Valesky of Oneida is joining the push for a “Syracuse Billion.”

The Independent Democratic Conference member on Monday said in a statement he backed the plan as proposed by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner to have the state commit to a massive infrastructure investment in the central New York city.

“Mayor Miner’s proposal contains exactly the components we need to propel Syracuse and Central New York into economic growth in the 21st Century,” Valesky said in a statement. “This plan’s singular focus is on infrastructure—investing in the physical needs and human capital to create a playing field where the entire community can grow. The Syracuse Billion proposal is a comprehensive plan that has my wholehearted support.”

Though the proposal has echos of the “Buffalo Billion” — a program that targeted private-sector job growth through specific state investment — this program Miner backs is aimed at upgrading Syracuse’s roads, bridges and sewer systems which are increasingly costly to maintain on the local level.

Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, last week announced he also backed Miner’s proposal.

Miner will be a guest on Capital Tonight this evening.

Skelos: Property Tax Package ‘A Critical Component’

Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos called the property-tax rebate program designed to nudge local governments on cutting costs a “critical component” of the agreed-to spending plan.

In an interview, Skelos said the multi-year rebate program was designed to shore up relief programs like STAR that were taken away.

“This is slowly trying to get back that type of property tax relief for those paying property taxes outside of the city of New York,” he said.

The tax plan would require local governments to budget within the state’s cap on local property tax levy increases and then in a second year find ways to share services. Property taxpayers would then receive the difference in the tax increase in the first year.

The property tax “freeze” was proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his January budget proposal.

The measure was altered to allow for shared service programs currently in place to be considered.

“It is tough for the local districts, but many of them already are looking at efficiencies, shared services, some areas are sharing superintendents,” Skelos said.

“So I think there are some positive steps going, but we want to look for them to continue to look for efficencies in their school district, their municipality.”

Skelos even adopted some language that Cuomo has used to spur local governments on cutting costs, noting the state has budgeted within a self-imposed 2 percent limit on spending increases.

“If we can do it, certainly our local government can do it,” he said.

Statewide Pre-K Pegged At $340M

State officials are closing in on an agreement that would fund statewide pre-kindergarten programs at $340 million in the coming 2014-15 budget.

Under the agreement, $300 million would be set aside for New York City, with $40 million for the rest of the state.

The deal comes after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had campaigned on a plan that would provide universal pre-K in the city with a tax on those who earn $500,000 and more a year to pay for it.

But the tax increase ran into opposition in Albany – both from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Republicans.

Cuomo had proposed spending $1.5 billion over five years, with $100 million starting in the first year, to fund pre-K.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s one-house budget resolution proposed spending $540 million, which was the number de Blasio had proposed ($340 million for pre-K and the rest for after school programs). Unlike the Assembly however, the Senate rejected de Blasio’s ask for the power to tax rich New York City residents, and instead proposed to pay for pre-K and after school programs by cutting $1 billion worth of corporate tax cuts sought by Cuomo.