State Senate

Griffo To Become Deputy Minority Leader, Akshar To Lead SRCC

Republican Sen. Joe Griffo of Rome will become the deputy minority leader, leading the conference’s floor operations in the state Senate, incoming Minority Leader John Flanagan announced Friday.

At the same time, Binghamton-area Sen. Fred Akshar will replace Sen. Cathy Young as the chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

Akshar, a prominent upstate Flanagan ally, replaces Sen. Cathy Young, who had challenged Flanagan for the leadership post in November after Republicans lost of the majority.

Young is also losing her post as the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. The job ranking member will go to Sen. Jim Seward.

“Jim Seward is a consummate professional who will make an outstanding ranker of the Senate Finance Committee. Our budget priorities will be widely known and well articulated, and we will stand up for taxpayers at every turn,” Flanagan said.

Griffo replaces Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse, who is retiring this year.

“No one knows more than Joe Griffo about the ins-and-outs of what happens on the floor of the State Senate. I am confident he will pursue every avenue and work every angle to allow us to be a vocal Minority and an aggressive voice for taxpayers and their families,” Flanagan said.

GOP Senators Discuss Return To Reject Pay Raise Plan

From the Morning Memo:

Members of the state Senate could potentially return to Albany for one more vote before the end of the calendar year.

Two sources said there were discussions Thursday with members of the Republican conference, gauging whether there would be enough interest to vote Dec. 27 to reject the recent recommendations of the pay raise commission.

Earlier this month, the commission voted to give state legislators a $50,000 raise over the next several years while limiting outside income to 15 percent of the salary and eliminating committee stipends known as lulus.

Many legislators have complained that the commission members’ proposal was outside the panel’s legal purview, and a lawsuit has already commenced to challenge it. However, it is expected to become law unless legislators pass and the governor signs a bill nullifying the decision before Jan. 1.

So far, there’s been a lot of unhappy talk by lawmakers, but no real action. As a result, some GOP sources are questioning the point of returning on the “leader’s prerogative.”

One source said a “vocal minority” of senators are pushing to get their stance against the commission report on the record. Others, the source said, told current Majority Leader John Flanagan, they would return to the Capitol if asked.

Because Republican state Sen. Tom Croci, of Long Island, remains on active duty with the Navy Reserve, the conferences are essentially equally split with 31 votes apiece. Several other GOP legislators are lame ducks whose terms will be over at the end of the year. Democrats take control of the Senate next session.

The source said in order to even get a quorum, at least some Democrats would have to agree to return – something unlikely to happen unless the Assembly decides to come back as well. Flanagan told members of his conference talks between him and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie about the pay raises are ongoing.

As for why they are looking at next Thursday, it appears to be the most reasonable day between holidays for legislators to return if needed – provided they’re not celebrating outside the state.

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.”

Stewart-Cousins Endorses Bellone

From the Morning Memo:

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s re-election bid at an event on Wednesday evening was endorsed by incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and the half-dozen Democrats who will represent Long Island in the chamber next year.

“He has been a partner from the moment I met him, from the time we started talking about what looked like an almost-insurmountable journey back,” Stewart-Cousins told the crowd last night.

“There was never any question as far as this county executive was concerned that if we dance together and reached across the aisle, it would set an example and a model as how we can work as a team.”

Democrats now hold six of the nine seats that represent Nassau and Suffolk counties in the state Senate: Sens. Todd Kaminsky, John Brooks, Anna Kaplan, Kevin Thomas, Jim Gaughran and Monica Martinez.

All are considered key suburban seats crucial to maintaining a majority in the chamber.

Democrats will hold at least 39 of the Senate’s 63 seats in the new legislative session.

Thomas, who unseated Republican Sen. Kemp Hannon in November, was on hand for the Bellone endorsement last night.

Bellone was first elected county executive in 2011 and is seeking a third term this year.

Flanagan Sides With Heastie In Pay Reform Dispute

Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan backed up the account of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie when it came to his understanding of the purview of the compensation commission: It will be considering salaries, nothing else.

The pay panel this month released a report that backed pay raises for lawmakers, department heads and statewide elected officials, but also capped outside income for members of the Legislature and ended stipends for most leadership posts.

The decision has angered some lawmakers who have balked at the reforms linked to the pay hike, pointing to similar stipulations not being in place for the governor.

“The committee was never charged with weighing in on issues such as outside income, the elimination of stipends, or changing the Legislature from part-time to full-time – and they were never even expected to discuss them,” Flanagan said. “Matters essential to how the Legislature operates should be debated in public and out in the open, and any proposed reforms must be approved by voters through a constitutional amendment.”

Cuomo has insisted the pay commission’s decision, which will take effect in the new year, had a broader mandate to consider areas like “performance” — such as budgets being approved on time. Subsequent increase phase-ins will be tied to budgets being passed by April 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year.

“I am disappointed that the Governor is attempting to rewrite history,” Flanagan said. “He knows that he gave the Speaker and I his word. With at least one lawsuit already filed to challenge this panel’s recommendations, it’s time for the Governor to be honest about his intent and his motives.”

New Senate Dems Back Congestion Pricing

From the Morning Memo:

A half dozen new Democrats entering office in 2019 in a joint statement are backing congestion pricing as a way of helping shore up mass transit in New York City.

The incoming lawmakers, Alessandra Biaggi, Andrew Gounardes, Robert Jackson, Zellnor Myrie, Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar all backed a “comprehensive, robust, fair and sustainable” plan for the MTA that includes congestion pricing as a centerpiece.

“Congestion pricing has the unique potential of raising over a billion dollars each year dedicated to transit,” they said in the statement. “Drivers who commute into Manhattan represent a small, comparatively wealthy portion of the public. Congestion pricing will offer them less crowded streets and offer the overwhelming majority of transit riders new signals, subway cars, and hundreds of station elevators. It will enable the MTA to embark on its Fast Forward plan to restore reliability, increase capacity, and make the subway accessible to all New Yorkers. Without it we will not achieve the revenue necessary to achieve those goals.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in an address at the New York City Bar Association reiterated that congestion pricing would be a top priority for the new legislative session as a way of helping find a new revenue stream for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

But the details of congestion pricing make the issue a tricky one for lawmakers and has sunk earlier proposals in prior years amid opposition from lawmakers who represent boroughs outside of Manhattan.

Still, having new Democratic lawmakers backing the issue, including those from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens could push the issue forward.

“This statement matters because it’s momentum for congestion pricing, from a group of newly elected Senators, who ran on a platform of fixing the broken subway system,” said John Raskin, the executive director of the Riders Alliance.

“The subway has long symbolized Albany’s failure, but I think with the governor’s commitment and new urgency in the legislature, we could finally raise the billions of dollars we need to turn transit around.”

Parker Tells Senate GOP Staffer To ‘Kill Yourself’

parkerDemocratic state Sen. Kevin Parker told a spokeswoman for the Republican conference to “kill yourself” on Twitter in a since-deleted exchange on Tuesday that led to a rebuke from incoming Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

“I sincerely apologize,” Parker wrote later on Twitter. “I used a poor choice of words. Suicide is a serious thing and and should not be made light of.”

Senate GOP spokeswoman Candice Giove wrote on Twitter that a parking placard assigned to Parker did not match a vehicle’s license plate. The car itself was, according to another tweet, was blocking a bike lane.

Parker tweeted in response, “Kill yourself.”

The tweet was quickly deleted, but not before it was noticed by others on the site.

The comment was criticized by lawmakers in both parties.

“I was disappointed in Senator Parker’s tweet,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “Suicide is a serious issue and should not be joked about in this manner. I am glad that he has apologized.”

Republican state Sen. Tom O’Mara called the comment “outrageous.” Another Republican, Sen. Robert Ortt, called the comment “reckless.”

“At a time when 20 veterans a day commit suicide, tweets such as Sen. Parker’s should not be taken lightly, and I expect my colleagues across the aisle to hold him responsible for his comment,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was made aware of the exchange by a reporter in an unrelated question-and-answer session, called the comment “inappropriate.”

The blow up came just weeks before Democrats are taking majority control of the state Senate. Parker is in line to become the next chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

He is the sponsor of a bill that would require law enforcement to review a person’s social media history before obtaining a firearm.

Parker has a history of outbursts, including one incident that involved an altercation with a New York Post photographer.

Information on the national suicide prevent hotline can be found here.

Pay Raises: ‘Let New Yorkers Have A Say’

Dissatisfaction with legislative pay raises is trending among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Hudson Valley state Sen. Sue Serino introduced a bill that would require voters to have a say in approving the pay commission’s recommendations.

“With New York politicians poised to become the highest paid in the nation, New Yorkers themselves deserve a say in the process, it’s that simple,” Serino said.

She voted against the pay commission’s creation in the 2018 state budget.

“Many public servants work tirelessly on behalf of their constituents, and their salaries should reflect that commitment and dedication, however, lawmakers’ salaries are paid for by the hardworking taxpayers of this state, and they are the ones who should decide whether a raise is warranted,” Serino said. “This bill would ensure that their voices are heard loud and clear.”

Should the commission’s recommendations be solidified into law come January 1st, Sen. Serino would have to decide whether she wants to retain her post, or give up involvement in her Dutchess County based real estate company.

The commission’s recommendations included boosting salaries for members of the state legislature, executive chamber and commissioners, also, capping outside income to 15 percent of salaries and a severely denuded stipend system.

The bill was introduced on December 14th, and is currently in the Senate Rules Committee.

Rivera: ACA Ruling Highlights Need For NY Health Act

From the Morning Memo:

Incoming Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera in a statement Sunday said the ruling by a federal Texas judge striking down the Affordable Care Act is a signal that single-payer health care is needed “more than ever.”

The judge’s ruling invalidating the law, known commonly as Obamacare, does not immediately health care for the millions of people who have signed up for insurance through health exchanges and the decision is likely to be appealed by supporters of the law.

“Legal scholars have already stated that the rationale behind this ruling is inherently flawed and would most likely be rejected by higher courts,” Rivera said.

“However, as the incoming Chair of the New York State Senate’s Health Committee, one thing is clear to me – we cannot stand idly by while federal authorities continue to attack the healthcare of millions of New Yorkers. We have a responsibility to defend them and, as the results of the midterm elections made abundantly clear, New Yorkers have demanded we do.”

Rivera has previously signaled he’s changing aspects of the existing single-payer health care bill, known as the New York Health Act, in part to alleviate concerns raised by some labor unions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said a single-payer model works better on the federal level and has raised concerns about the legislation’s cost. In July, Cuomo backed enacting aspects of the federal ACA into state law that are already not in New York statue.

“This bill seeks to provide better coverage for all and drastically reduce the financial burden that the current system places on families and individuals,” Rivera said. “I am committed to continue engaging with all key stakeholders and work towards making it a reality. New Yorkers deserve no less.”

Panepinto Sentenced To Two Months For Attempted Cover-Up

Former State Senator Marc Panepinto has been sentenced to two months in prison for attempting to cover up unwanted sexual advances toward a former legislative staffer.

Federal judge Michael Roemer also gave the Democrat one year supervised release and a $9,500 fine. In June, Panepinto pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of making a promise of employment, compensation or other benefit for political activity.

He admitted to making a series of unwanted advances toward the female staffer in her hotel room while the two were in New York City for a fundraiser for him. After the young woman resigned and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics opened up an investigation into the situation, Panepinto sent another staffer to offer money and/or another government job in order to buy her silence.

Panepinto called a sudden press conference to resign his post after that attempt apparently fell through. During that March 2016 press conference, he gave several reasons for his decision including an unspecified situation with staff turnover but denied any ethics investigation.

The judge said he received 80 letters as part of the pre-sentencing process; one from the defendant, one from the victim, and 78 on behalf of the defendant. He said many of the people wrote that they were disappointed with Panepinto’s behavior but felt it was out of character and discussed the many charitable things he did for friends, family and the community.

Both Panepinto and his attorney addressed the judge directly, saying he was remorseful and took full responsibility for his actions. In asking for only a fine, they asked the judge not to minimize the action but to weigh the defendant’s other good deeds and the potential impact on his family and the people he employs.

The court room was nearly full with Panepinto’s family and colleagues, many of them teary-eyed. Panepinto got emotional himself as he discussed how the case has affected his three daughters.

However, the U.S. Attorney’s office said the way the defendant described his conduct led it to believe he still didn’t fully appreciate the “wrongfulness” of his actions. In particular, prosecutor Paul Bonanno noted Panepinto called his offer to the former staffer a “settlement” when in fact it was an illegal quid pro quo.

He also said Panepinto already attempted to use monetary payment to avoid consequences and a simple fine would not be sufficient.

“The defendant essentially sought to purchase this young woman’s silence,” U.S. Attorney J.P. Kennedy said in a statement. “In so doing, he placed his own interests above those of his staff and his constituents; he sought to use his position to benefit himself above all others. His abuse of power cost him his office and bought him a federal criminal conviction.”

The judge said he gave long consideration to not incarcerating Panepinto and believed he was, in fact, remorseful. Still, Roemer called the actions “wholly inappropriate” and a “flagrant abuse” and worried that no prison time would be seen as a slap on the wrist by the public.

In one of the more poignant moments, the judge said he understood Panepinto’s concern for his own daughters but said “every woman is someone’s daughter.” He also noted that Panepinto has been convicted of two previous misdemeanors, the most recent an election law violation.

“He should have learned his lesson that time,” Roemer said.

The victim herself was not in the courtroom. The prosecutor said he spoke with her this week and she felt it would be very difficult and painful to appear and she also wanted to protect her anonymity.

Bonanno said she did not want anybody to think that meant she didn’t care what happened to Panepinto. The attorney repeatedly pointed out the devastating effect the situation had on her life and that she has since moved out of state and no longer works in politics.

The judge initially recommended Panepinto voluntarily surrender himself after the New Year but the defense asked for 60 days in order for him to take care of things with his law firm. Roemer granted that request.

It’s unclear at this point if Panepinto will be able to continue to practice law in New York State moving forward.