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by Jay Gallagher

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Paterson on U-Tube: support your local legislator

Just hours before the new fiscal year is to begin, Gov. David Paterson today issued a plea on U-Tube for voters to contact their local legislators and tell them they support cuts in spending.

Lawmakers, who are on vacation until next Wednesday, are deadlocked over how much to cut spending for education, health care and other state programs, whether to raise taxes on cigarettes and whether to borrow more money to meet operating expenses.

Paterson today signed a temporary-spending bill to keep the state operating until April 11 while the haggling continues and another that will delay about $2 billion in aid to local schools due tomorrow until the state finds the money to pay for it.

" be fair, my legislative colleagues, the senators, the Assembly members and their leaders are working very hard in Albany to try to ameliorate this problem and I don't think that the barrier is their inability to grasp the gravity of our current financial woes,’’ Paterson said. “ Rather, I think my colleagues are nervous about the cost of making these tough decisions.”

He continued, "I served with them as a legislator for over 20 years, so I think I'm sensitive to the problems that they face. And so I urge all of you New Yorkers to contact your local legislators and not to criticize them, but rather to remind them that just as you have had to make the tough choices for yourselves and your families, now they have to make those difficult decisions for the state.

"Tell them that you will support that they make these difficult decisions. Encourage them to reduce spending so that we have a more affordable economy and let them know that you will be for them if they put us on the road to fiscal recovery,’’ he said.

So far, no word of phones ringing off the hook in lawmakers’ offices. Most powerful interest group at the Capitol, from the teacher unions to hospitals to public-employee unions and other groups, whom lawmakers depend on for campaign cash, are pushing the other way - against any cuts. That’s why some are predicting a long delay before any spending plan is approved.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Big Apple State

After some exhaustive research, which included Google and Wikipedia, I am here to shed some light on why New York is the "Empire State.''

But not too much, since the answer seems murky.

The question came to mind this week when we were losers in the federal government’s “race to the top’’ for about $700 million in education aid. How could anyone not think the “Empire State’’ is the best.

But upon further reflection, I thought, what does it mean to be the Empire State?

And for that matter, why can’t we be named after something simpler, like gardens (New Jersey), mountains (Vermont) rocks (New Hampshire), a tree (Maine), the ocean (Rhode Island) or a part thereof (the Bay State, Massachusetts)?

I also understand why Michigan, say, would rather be known as the Great Lakes State rather than say, the heart of the rust belt.

Here’s the New York story.

At some point in the 1780s, George Washington may have (nobody caught it on tape) made a reference to New York being the "seat of Empire.'' In those days, "empire'' apparently carried the connotation since lots of economic growth and progress, and not necessarily a system where one group dominates another. Back in those days (this was a long time ago) New York seemed to fit the bill.

It must have seemed apt back in the days when we were building the Erie Canal, taming Niagara Falls and becoming an economic powerhouse. All that, of course, was a while ago now.

More recently, the nickname has given critics of the state a chance to have some fun over the years. Herb London, who was interested in running for governor in 1994, referred to it as the "Vampire State'' because, as he saw it, the state was sucking the life blood out of its citizens in the form of taxes. And this was even before the MTA surcharge and the plan to tax soda!

Among suggestions from readers today included "Union State,'' since they seem to be piloting the ship of state these days, and "Umpire State,'' since then we would at least know to expect some bad calls, and we wouldn't be so stunned each time Albany screws up.

My vote would go with "Big Apple State,'' since it is already the nickname of New York City (a sportswriter coined it, referring to big payoffs at tracks) and we're one of the leading apple producers in the country.

But nobody asked me.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Senate approves temporary spending bill

The Senate gave final passage to a bill this morning that will keep state government functioning through April 11 since there is now no chance a full budget will be adopted by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.
Most senators quickly left the Capitol today and are not scheduled to return until a week from Wednesday. The Assembly left town Friday.
Most Republicans joined in with Democrats to pass the temporary spending bill that passed the Assembly last week and is all but guaranteed to be signed into law by the governor. The final vote was 54-6, with six Republicans voting no.
One of them was Joseph Griffo of Rome, Oneida County.
“There is an erosion of confidence,’’ he said. “Deadlines need to be met. It’s unacceptable. We should continue to meet.’’
The Democrats could not have passed the bill without Republican support, since Democrat Ruth Hassell-Thompson of Mt. Vernon, who has a history of heart problems and was taken to the hospital last week, was not in the chamber this morning, and without her the Dems have only 31 votes - one shy of a majority.
The lawmakers also passed, with a little more trouble, a bill that will allow teachers to retire as young as 55 without penalty during a three-month period this year if they have 25 years on the job. Otherwise they would have to wait until 62 or get a smaller pension.
This provision was part of a deal that helped to buy the support of New York State United Teachers last fall for support of a bill that diminishes the pensions of newly hired teachers and other public workers. The vote on today’s bill, which has already passed the Assembly, was 49-11.
No word on how much the provision will cost taxpayers.
There was no progress reported after a weekend of talks on an overall budget. How much to cut school aid and health care and whether to borrow money for operating expenses are among the outstanding issues.
In another budget matter, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario Colunty, has suggested that Gov. Paterson have a sincere, frank discussion with public-employee unions about the state’s dire fiscal straits.
So far unions have rejected any suggestion they put off raises, scheduled to go into effect as early as next week, that will cost taxpayers $3 billion a year, according to an analysis done by the Empire Center. Contracts are contracts, they say.

Friday, March 26, 2010

It was only a feint

Lawmakers made a feint at making progress on a new state budget today, but in the end didn’t seem to accomplish anything.

For the first time in two years, they held a legally mandated conference-committee meeting before TV cameras and the public, but reached no agreements.

The Assembly plans to pass a spending bill tonight to keep the state operating until April 11, while the Senate plans to do the same Monday morning. The current state fiscal year ends Wednesday at midnight, and with it the legal authority of the state to spend money unless the Legislature acts, passing either a budget (not likely) or the emergency bills (bet on it.).

The two houses differ on how much money to cut from education and health care, whether to raise cigarette taxes and whether to borrow up to $2 billion for operating expenses, among other items.

None of these were discussed today. Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos of Nassau County tried to get his Democratic counterpart, John Sampson of Brooklyn, to admit that the Dems’ budget plan doesn’t include goodies like property-tax rebate checks and a cap on state spending.

Sampson pretty much ignored his questions, responding instead that he was looking forward to see what Republicans want to cut (no dice there either.)

Only Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, brought up specific ideas, like merging state agencies. He said a whole list of cuts the Republicans have come up with will be distributed shortly to other lawmakers.

But he was widely ignored, since Republicans have only 42 votes in the Assembly, compared to 107 for the Democrats.

“The public is waiting for substantive debate on the budget,’’ said the League’s legislative director Barbara Bartoletti. “They didn’t get that today.’’

They might have a long wait.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Battle lines are drawn; who cares about openness?

Even as taxpayers got a clearer look at the differences in how the Assembly and Senate would balance next year’s budget, just how they will work out their disputes became murkier.
The Assembly yesterday passed its version of a budget plan. Here are the major differences with the Senate budget resolution that passed earlier in the week:
-- Cut $800 million from aid to local schools, rather than the $1.4 billion the Senate and Gov. David Paterson want;
-- Borrow $2 billion for operating expenses (Senate: nothing) but also don’t count on getting $700 million from refinancing state bonds as the Senate is;
-- Raise the cigarette tax by $1 a pack, to $3.75. The Senate would leave it at $2.75;.
-- Cut $126 million less from health care than Paterson proposed and the Senate OK’d.
-- Approved mixed-martial-arts exhibitions, and taxes them. The Senate would leave a current ban in place;
Neither house went along with Paterson’s plan to raise about $800 million through a tax on soda and other sugary drinks.
State law calls for the two houses to resolve these differences in public conference committees. But none have been scheduled yet and lawmakers are due to leave town tomorrow and not return until Wednesday, April 7.
The budget is supposed to be passed by April 1, but has been routinely late (sometimes a few days, sometimes months) in recent decades.
Paterson yesterday proposed a temporary spending plan to keep the state running through early April. That’s necessary because after April 1 the state has no power to spend money unless the Legislature acts.
The Assembly intends to pass the emergency bill tomorrow, but the Senate still hopes an overall deal can be worked out.
League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti said lawmakers should work to resolve their differences in public - and in the meantime try to explain to their constituents how severe the budget problem is and what sacrifices will be needed to fix it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

'Pay to play' squared

“Pay to play’’ is an old Albany tradition, long fought by the League and other reform groups. But an allegation that surfaced today seems to take it to a whole new level.

The New York Post reported today that Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, sent out a letter earlier this month to labor leaders, suggesting they contribute $50,000 to Senate Democrats to get “direct dialogue’’ with lawmakers.

These are the same Democrats who will control how much state money big union constituencies, like teachers and health-care workers, get in this year’s budget.

The invitation to join suggested that labor leaders could be members of the “2010 Labor Advisory Council’’ for $25,000, or council “chairs’’ for $50,000.

Klein’s letter promised that “the advisory council chairs will be invited to meetings with the Senate Democratic majority leadership.’’

Lobbyists get invitations to fund-raisers for lawmakers and other state officials incessantly, with sometimes as many as seven or eight events being held on a night when the Legislature is in town.

The problem, as League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti pointed out, is that “those that have the money get the access,’’ while those without fat wallets are left on the outside.

“The only solution,’’ she said, “is to have comprehensive campaign-finance reform,’’ including lower limits on contributions, more disclosure of donations and better enforcement of existing regulations.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hoop still in place

Reformists figured one of the slam-dunks they could count on when Democrats took control of the Senate last year was a measure known as a “no-excuses’’ absentee ballot.

New York is one of the few states that requires people who want to use absentee ballots to disclose personal information about why they can’t get to the polls Election Day’ like affidavits from their employers.

The politics seemed to break the reformers’ way because typically people on the edge of whether to vote or not tend to support Democrats, while Republicans do better among established voters. So the bill for years has been approved by the Democratic-controlled Assembly but never surfaced in the GOP-run Senate.

But it turned out not to be so easy after all even after control of the Senate changed hands last year. Some Democrats, reformers were told privately, were concerned that expanding the number of ballots might make them more vulnerable to primary challenges, mostly in New York City.

Still the bill, sponsored by Senate Elections Committee Chairman Joseph Addabbo, D-Queens, and approved by the Assembly, and was poised to pass the Senate last June when the coup gave power back to the Republicans temporarily, so it died. This year, in light of Republican opposition, Democrats told reformers they were waiting for the election of their 32nd member - who turned out to be Jose Peralta of Queens - to pass it.

He was seated last week, but so far, the bill hasn’t moved to the floor, and it’s unclear why.

League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti it’s important that the bill pass.

“This would drop a barrier for voters to participate in the process without having to jump through unnecessary hoops,’’ she said.

Unnecessary hoops? For voters? In New York? So far, this one is still in place.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Not all smoke and mirrors

The Senate budget plan expected to be voted on tonight is, surprise, not all smoke and mirrors - it includes real cuts in spending, especially education and health care.

No new taxes and some gimmicks, but still somewhat fiscally sound.

The Senate made the first move in adopting a budget today, proposing a resolution that will be the basis of negotiations (supposedly in public) with the Assembly. Voting on a final budget package is still most likely weeks away.

Among the highlights of the Senate plan:

-- a cut of about $1.4 billion, or 5 percent, in aid to local schools. Education groups said it would mean the elimination of 1,400 jobs across the state.

-- a reduction in of $1.1 billion in expected health-care spending.

-- a $700 million “one-shot,’’ or one-time revenue, from refinancing state tobacco bonds.

-- no new taxes on sugary drinks or cigarettes and no wine sales allowed in grocery stores.

-- $250 million from collecting taxes on cigarettes sold on Indian reservations.

-- three prisons would close, parks would stay open and college-tuition-assistance grants would be maintained.

‘We really are biting the bullet,’’ Senate Finance Committee Vice Chair Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said today.

But the cuts also include deep reductions to some state agencies. League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti said she feared the Board of Elections may face such severe cuts that it won’t be able to do its job of monitoring the election process.

At least initially, the Senate Democratic majority has rejected Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch’s plan to borrow $2 billion for expenses. But much more water will go over the dam before a final plan is adopted.

The Assembly is also expected to adopt its budget resolution this week - also with no new taxes, but with deep cuts in education and other spending.

One thing clear right now: the thought-to-be-all-powerful education lobbyists have some work to do to get lawmakers to agree to just keep spending level next year.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Stirrings among the GOP

The race for governor, which appeared to be likely to pit huge underdog Republican Rick Lazio against Democratic Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, was shaken up today when Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy announced he is also running for the Republican nomination.

What makes the development doubly interesting is that, until today, Levy was a Democrat.

But in front of a smiling state GOP chairman Ed Cox and other party officials, Levy signed an application changing his enrolment (it won’t actually take effect until after the election, however.)

Levy, a former member of the Assembly, has headed the state’s largest county (about 1.5 million people) outside New York City since 2003, and was cross-endorsed by Republicans in 2007 when he was re-elected with more than 95 percent of the vote.

He said today he switched parties because “reckless spending that hurts people more than anything else,’’ and he blames Dems more than Repubs for that.

The Republicans also offer him a far easier route to the general election, since any Democratic governor-wannabe would have to tangle with Cuomo in a primary. Cuomo is expected to announce his candidacy next month. Gov. David Paterson has already said he won’t run.

Levy is more liberal than most Republicans on many social issues - he’s pro-choice on abortion, for example, but is fiscally conservative. He’s also known for his fierce opposition to illegal immigration.

“This year the issues will almost be totally fiscal,’’ he said.

To get on the September primary ballot, he has to get more than half of the weighted vote at the party’s June convention (rather than 25 percent, since he is not yet officially a Republican)

And in another twist to the race, friends say Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino plans to enter the GOP race for governor. He has the support of some Tea Party members and is reportedly ready to spend $10 million of his own money on the campaign.

So while a few weeks ago Cuomo and his $16 million campaign fund seemed to be scaring off potential GOP challengers, now it appears that there will be no shortage of candidates hoping to have a chance to run against him.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How not to pass a budget

Wonder why it might be tough to get a budget passed?

While taxpayers are still waiting for each house of the Legislature to present their budget proposals, Senate Republicans today pushed a “comprehensive property-tax relief plan’’ with only the vaguest and most general ideas about how to pay for it.

While the state already has a $9.2 billion budget hole, the GOP plan would cost more than $2 billion, a GOP senator, Betty Little of Queensbury, Warren County, said this week.

She and other Republicans said that the money could be made up by a cap
on state spending, which they will push in budget negotiations. Once public conference committees on the budget are established, the Republicans promise to outline other savings in the budget that could be used to include school property-tax rebates in the new budget.

This of course is a great time not to be in charge of anything, which is the position the Republicans find themselves in, since they can point fingers and propose tax cuts and urge spending restorations without wondering whether the numbers will add up. You can almost see them salivating the closer November gets and they consider their chances of wiping out the thin (32-30) Democratic majority, knocking off incumbents who vote for a budget that will include so much bad news.

For their part, Democrats in neither house have yet to identify what they think should be done to close the budget gap. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Brooklyn, said it is unlikely his house would approve of any tax hikes. And 16 Senate Democrats signed a letter sent to Gov. David Paterson this week saying they will vote against any budget plan that includes cuts to education. (Paterson proposed a trim of 5 percent, or about $1.4 billion.) They somehow forgot to mention where the money lost from such actions should come from.

What’s next? Both houses are expected to approve some wishful thinking in their budget plans (more gambling revenue, money from taxes on cigarettes sold on Indian reservations).

The idea seems to be to avoid hard decisions for as long as possible, which from the perspective of lawmakers looks like their best political strategy. As for a fiscal strategy, it looks disastrous. It’s how we got to this point in the first place.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The sun shines in - sort of

The sun was shining brightly outside the Capitol today, and beams of it even penetrated the cavernous Assembly chamber.

But in the back rooms where key decisions may or may not be getting made, there was only the traditional darkness.

In the middle of “sunshine week,’’ the Assembly passed a package of bills designed to strengthen parts of the state’s open-meetings and freedom-of-information laws. (They were passed in 1975. Thank you, Watergate. Thank you, Richard Nixon.) The package is scheduled to be approved by the Senate tomorrow.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in the package, but League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti said the bills “will help make government more transparent, and encourage more citizens to participate in government.’’

The bills would:
-- waive the ability of governments to claim copyright protections as reasons for denial of access in most cases;
-- require governments to hold meetings in rooms big enough to accommodate expected crowds;
-- cut the time state agencies can appeal judgments against them for freedom-of-information-law violations from nine months to 30 days;
-- authorize state agencies to waive fees related to reproductions of records.

While the Assembly met in public today to pass these bills, the real action, as has been the case for weeks, will be behind closed doors tonight, when members of the Democratic majority of both houses meet to talk about the budget. Lawmakers have less than two weeks before the deadline to adopt a new spending plan, and have yet to hold serious negotiating sessions in public.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Man bites dog at Capitol

From the man-bites-dog department: In a move that shocked Albany veterans, Gov. David Paterson today signed a bill in a ceremony that had Republicans and Democrats saying nice things about each other advocates proclaiming that the measure will improve the lives of New Yorkers.

A senator even praised Paterson, the most unpopular governor in recent state history, if polls are to be believed, who seemed to be on the verge of resigning just a little more than a week ago.

It was a shocking about-face in the Capitol better known as Dysfunction Junction, where gridlock, partisan bickering and scandal have become the norm.

Paterson today signed the Family Health Care Decisions Act into law. It allows family members to decisions like whether to withhold or withdraw of life-sustaining treatment, on behalf of patients who have lost their ability to make such decisions and don’t have health-care proxies. (Only about 20 percent of New Yorkers do).

Most people think they already had the right, but didn’t, even though it has been the informal policy for many doctors, hospitals and nursing homes. The measure was first proposed in 1994, but has been held up by concerns over protections for fetuses and rights of same-sex partners.

But this year it passed both houses of the Legislature by wide margins.

“Now, families will be able to make medical decisions for loved ones who don't have the ability to do so. Patients will no longer be denied appropriate treatment, subjected to burdensome treatments, or have their wishes, values, or religious beliefs violated,’’ said Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard N. Gottfried.

The measure “is yet another progressive piece of legislation that Gov. Paterson has signed into law and he deserves our thanks for his leadership," said Senate Health Committee chairman Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, who also gave a pat on the back to his Republican predecessor in as head of the Health Committee, Kemp Hannon, R-Nassau County.

Yipes. Next thing you know they’ll tell us they have a budget deal before the deadline…Well, probably not.


Speaking of the budget, I asked Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch in a radio interview today if the state’s financial mess is worse than New York City’s near fiscal meltdown in 1975.
“This is much worse,’’ Ravitch said, in part because while the state helped the city straighten out its finances then, there is no equivalent angel for the state to turn to now.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Finger-pointing time at the Capitol

The elaborate dance among legislators trying to wring maximum political advantage (Republicans) and minimizing political harm (Democrats) from the ugly budget that has to be passed this year has begun.

Legislative leaders announced over the weekend that they have agreed to establish bipartisan committees of rank-and-file lawmakers to try to reach agreement on a new state budget in public meetings.

Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, want to draw the Republicans into what is sure to be a painful process as lawmakers try to figure out how to close a $9 billion budget gap. Republicans likely won’t want any part of it.

So far, Gov. David Paterson has been the budget bad guy, proposing specific steps like cutting aid to local schools by $1.4 billion, slashing health-care spending by $1 billion, closing more than 40 state parks and raising taxes on sugared drinks and cigarettes. He had been rewarded by record-low poll ratings.

Since Paterson came out with his plan in January, lawmakers have spent most of their time agreeing that the problem is serious, listening to those who oppose specific cuts and tax hikes and otherwise keeping their heads down.

But now, with the new state fiscal year starting April 1, the rubber is coming close to hitting the road. The final decision is up to the Legislature, and establishing the committees is a step towards meeting that responsibility.

This is mostly good news.

“Clearly in this fiscal crisis the public needs to know where their tax money is going,’’ said League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti.

But first, she pointed out, each house first has to pass its own budget resolution detailing its plans of how to balance the budget, so the panels of lawmakers in these public meetings will have a starting point.

“That’s what has to happen first,’’ she said.

And that’s where much of the political jockeying is likely to take place. Republicans will try to portray the unpleasant documents as the work solely of the majority Democrats. Their message will likely be that the world would be a place of lower taxes and more public services if only voters would give them control of the Legislature.

The Dems, on the other hand, will try to show that the bad news has to be borne - and that if Republicans are serious about wanting to govern, they have to join in making the tough decisions.

Can all of this be done by April 1? Of course not. But any hint of actual progress by then would be a welcome signal that lawmakers are more responsible than most New Yorkers now give them credit for.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Big problems, small solutions

Those of you who glanced at your calendars today and watch what is happening at the Capitol might have noticed that the Legislature now has exactly two weeks to close a $9 billion budget hole and pass a new state spending plan.
The nominal start of the new fiscal year is April 1, but with Passover starting at dusk on the 29th, the 26th is the real deadline.
You might also have noticed that not a lot is going on toward identifying the needed cuts and spending hikes and getting an agreement.
And of course making a deal is of huge import to average New Yorkers - the ones who
pay school taxes and like to go to state parks once in a while, visit a library and drive over bridges. It’s even more critical for the poor, sick and the elderly who depend on the state for medical care and other sustenance.
What’s being done about it? Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch unveiled a comprehensive plan this week that depends on some borrowing to help the state ease down from the fiscal precipice, along with more stringent controls on other borrowing and spending.
But Senate Republicans, whose help would most likely be needed to get any plan like this passed, came up with their own plan to, yes, cut property taxes, and knocked Ravitch’s plan. They spoke only in generalities when asked to describe how they will pay for their tax cuts, which is, of course, the nub of the issue.
By now, both houses of the Legislature should be passing their own version of a spending plan, and then start to resolve the differences between the two at public meetings. But there is no sign that is going to happen any time soon. Nobody wants to go first with a list of cuts bound to anger teachers, state-employee unions, hospitals and others who depend on state largesse.
The backdrop here is what is likely to be a series of fierce contests in November over control of the Senate. The party that emerges with a majority will hold the knife in next year’s reapportionment, which is likely to either guarantee Democratic majorities for years or give Republicans a chance to hold on while they hope political fortunes shift back in their direction. (Reform groups plan to pressure candidates for governor to pledge not to sign a gerrymandered reapportionment bill next year, but such efforts have failed in the past.)
Meanwhile, although Gov. David Paterson is still in charge, he has virtually no political capital to spend on ramming through a deal. The Senate, with its narrow Democratic majority, remains chaotic.
This is the state’s most serious fiscal problem in more than 30 years, and the people in charge of trying to meet it are in the weakest position in memory.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reform groups hope to flex their muscles

The League is joining with other reform groups to stage what they hope will be a dramatic showing of how much citizens want change at the state Capitol.
"New Yorkers are fed up,'' a statement from the groups said today. "Scandals have driven from office Gov. Spitzer, Comptroller Hevesi, Senate Majority Leader Bruno and a growing number of state legislators. Some elected officials - including Gov. Paterson - are currently under investigation. Many of these abuses of power were rooted in the absence of effective and independent ethics and fiscal watchdogs, tough ethics laws and adequate transparency in government.''
The groups plan to descend on the Capitol on May 5 to put pressure on elected officials and candidates in this year's elections "to pledge to enact meaningful reforms.''
The agenda:
- Ensure that ethic, lobbying and campaign-finance watchdogs are independent and powerful.
- End the practice of legislators drawing their own district lines.
- Provide fairness in allocating legislative resources, including distributions of "member items."
- Reform the legislature's rules to increase transparency, accountability, and public input.
- Ban the personal use of campaign contributions.
- Eliminate obsolete public authorities.
- Establish an independent fiscal watchdog.
- Open up the government's budget books and put them on-line.
- End "pay to play" for lobbyists and seekers - and receivers - of government contracts.
- Require the public disclosure of "independent" campaign contributions and close loopholes.
- Bolster the role of small donors in the campaign-finance system.
- Restrict transfers from parties and legislative political committees to individual candidates
- Dramatically reduce the allowable size of campaign contributions.
"We want elected officials and those who are seeking office to put themselves on the line in terms of spelling out that they intend to do,'' said League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti.
The League backed a reform bill that passed the Legislature earlier this year that would have toughened campaign-finance enforcement and for the first time require lawmakers to disclose ranges of income from outside business dealings. Lobbyists would also have had to disclose any payments to legislators.
But Paterson said the bill didn't do far enough and vetoed it. Supporters couldn't get enough votes in the Senate to override the veto.
State government has been struck by an unprecedented series of scandals over the last three years, starting with Hevesi's admission that he used public workers to chauffeur his wife around and tend to her other needs. Spitzer quit two years ago tomorrow after admitting being the client of a prostitution ring and Bruno was convicted last fall of taking money from interest groups trying to influence state government.
Paterson is now being probed over his alleged involvement in an effort to get a victim of domestic violence from pressing a case against a top gubernatorial aide, and also over whether he lied under oath about how he got tickets to last year's World Series.
Groups joining with the League in the effort pushing for reform are the New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause New York, the Brennan Center for Justice and Citizens Union of the City of New York.
League members interested in attending the May 5 event should contact the state office at (518) 465-4162 about available bus transportation.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Budget Sweetener for Legislature from Lt. Gov.

Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch today proposed a $6 billion sweetener to lawmakers desperate not to cut spending or raise taxes next year, even in the face of a $9 billion budget gap.

As part of his plan to get the state’s spending and revenues in line, Ravitch - a key architect of the bailout plan for New York City in the 1970s - said the state could borrow as much as $2 billion a year over the next three years to pay for operating expenses.

He didn’t put it this way, but it’s the equivalent of taking out a home-equity loan to buy groceries.

“Borrowing is never a good way of solving operating deficits,’’ he said. But he added at another point, “A very limited amount of borrowing may be needed to reach our goal,’’ in part because he doesn’t think it’s politically possible for lawmakers to do the needed cutting and revenue-raising to balance this year’s budget.

He said within five years the state’s spending and revenues should be matched up. Current projections from the state Budget Division shows a $50 billion shortfall for that period.

Ravitch’s plan, which he planned to brief lawmakers on later today, would also:

-- Set up an independent financial-review board to make sure state spending doesn’t get out of control. If the board finds spending exceeding revenues, the Legislature would be required to make cuts. If lawmakers refused, the governor could make them.

-- Change the start of the fiscal year from April 1 to July 1, and potentially have lawmakers adopt a three-month spending plan soon while they ponder what changes to make for the new, later fiscal year.

-- Require the governor to submit a five-year financial plan when he proposes his budget. Now he proceeds one year at a time.

-- Make the state change its method of accounting from cash to accrual, meaning that revenues and expenditures would have to be counted when the obligation was incurred, not when the cash was received or spent. This would make it harder to manipulate the budget, he explained, by slowing down paying bills to send the obligation into another fiscal year.

Ravitch, 76, who was appointed to his job by Paterson last July, said “there has to be dramatic cuts’’ in spending, but didn’t suggest any. He said that’s up to Paterson and the Legislature.

Paterson, who before has ruled out borrowing to help balance the budget, praised the plan today.

“At its core, his plan reflects our shared view that New York's finances are on an unsustainable path and that true structural fiscal reform is urgently needed to control spending,’’ Paterson said. “Given the Lieutenant Governor's considerable experience and expertise, his proposals deserve to be heard and discussed as we move forward toward the final Enacted Budget.’’

E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for New York Policy, a conservative think tank, called the plan “an unhelpful distraction.’’

“This adds a huge dimension of confusion and complexity when what you need is a sharper spotlight’’ on the Legislature and its failure to agree so far to spending cuts, he said.

After being briefed on the plan earlier this week, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said it was “not dead on arrival’’ in his house, while Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, said he opposed borrowing and tax increases. Neither has yet publicly suggested yet spending cuts to balance the budget.

The Legislature is supposed to adopt a spending plan by the end of the month, but there has been little visible progress in negotiations with the deadline three weeks away.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

It's all in the numbers

Forty-three and 115. All of you reformers out there should remember those numbers, a leading reform advocate said today.

Oh yes, and one more number, too.

“Eighty percent of New Yorkers are getting ripped off,’’ said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Horner, the League’s Barbara Bartoletti, other reformers and lawmakers gathered today to push for a changes in the state’s $200 million member-item program of lawmakers and the governor doling out cash to organizations and projects in their districts.

The system has been a target of reformers for decades and little has changed. But this year something might actually happen, because “the public is really mad at us in every possible way,’’ said Assemblywoman (and former League activist) Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, Westchester County.

Horner pointed out some reasons for their wrath: former Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, D-Queens, is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for, among other things, steering money from member items intended for Little League into his personal account. And testimony in last fall’s trial of former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno showed that he used the funds for political purposes.

Lawmakers have resisted most changes in the past to the system. But Horner said emphasizing his numbers may make a difference this year. He said 43 out of 62 Senate members get less member-item funds than average, which is also the case for 115 of the 150 members of the Assembly. Thus, he said, 80 percent of voters are paying out to the other politically favored 20 percent.

“It’s a question of taxpayer dollars being spent fairly, and to make sure they go to groups that really need them,’’ said Sen. Jose Serrano Jr., D-Bronx, the Senate sponsor.

The bill he and Galef are pushing would require:

-- all lawmakers get the same amount of member-item money;
-- legislators to report any potential conflicts of interest with the grants;
-- the grant proposals to be made public t least 24 hours before they are approved by the Legislature;
-- all groups getting the money have to be vetted by the attorney general.

All of this may be moot this year, since it’s possible that facing a $9 billion budget hole lawmakers may not want to add $200 million in new spending.

But not necessarily.

“There have been discussions about whether there will be member items,’’ Galef said. Who knows?’’

Friday, March 5, 2010

Public pressure paying off for parks

Those of you who have been protesting proposed state-park closings should know that you’re having some effect.

Several lawmakers said this week they’re getting more mail on this issue than anything else. One, Sen. Hugh Farley, D-Niskayuna, Schenectady County, flatly predicted that money for the parks will be restored to the budget and that none will be closed.

Gov. Paterson has proposed closing 91state parks and 14 historic sites (about half the total) as part of his plan to close a $9 billion budget gap for the fiscal year that starts April 1.

The closings would save a relative pittance - a mere $11 million out of a state budget of $134 billion - and obviously would raise the ire of the millions of people who visit them annually.

It’s not yet clear how some parks would actually be closed. It’s easy to drain a swimming pool and lock up historical sites, but you can’t fence in woods or block hiking trails. Enforcing such closures would likely cost more than keeping them open.

There are several theories about the politics of the plan. First is that parks to most people in key positions of power in the state mean Central Park in Manhattan or Prospect Park in Brooklyn - not Letchworth or Saratoga or Thatcher. State parks are not such a big deal in New York City, where top state leaders reside and the city runs the big parks.

Another is that the parks cuts will be a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Legislature. Restoring the money for the parks will allow the lawmakers to look like heroes to their constituents, at a minor cost to the state treasury.

That might make it easier for Paterson (or whoever is governor by the time this is resolved) to get lawmakers to agree to bigger cuts in areas where there is real money involved, like health care, education or closing prisons.

It’s clear that the more pressure applied by the public, the less likely park closings will actually happen.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Here's a hint why the budget will be late

It’s no surprise that a coalition of education groups said today they oppose Gov. Paterson’s plan to cut aid to schools by $1.4 billion, or about 5 percent next year.

But it was a little disappointing that they couldn’t say how much teacher raises scheduled to take effect next year are making the problem worse, or what they would do to bridge the $9 billion deficit that Paterson and lawmakers agree has to be closed.

The groups, including New York State United Teachers, the state School Boards Association, the state council of PTAs and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, held 18 simultaneous press conferences around the state to denounce the proposed cuts, which amount to about 2 percent of total spending on schools.

“Gov. Paterson’s proposed $1.4 billion cut in school funding asks the 2.5 million students across the Empire State, particularly the neediest, to sacrifice their education and economic futures of all New Yorkers,’’ said Geri Palast, Campaign for Fiscal Equity executive director.

Representatives of the other organizations said much the same thing, but then couldn’t answer some key questions.

When asked how much teacher salaries are going up around the state this year, NYSUT Vice President Andrew Pallotta said he didn’t know.

“It’s a local issue,’’ he said, even though teachers in almost all districts around the state are part of his union.

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn later said a survey of contracts signed last fall showed raises averaging between zero and 2 percent. But he said some who answered the survey didn’t include longevity raises in their calculations.

A survey done last year by the state School Boards Association found that last year the average raise granted by 522 districts to teachers was 5.6 percent for the 2008-09 school year.

When asked what the state should do to close the budget gap (the roughly $20 billion the state sends to school districts is its single largest expenditure) Billy Easton of Campaign for Fiscal Equity said that the groups didn’t have a unified position.

Any wonder than virtually nobody thinks lawmakers have a chance of getting a state budget done by the April 1 deadline?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Another shoe drops on Paterson

The shoes continue to drop on Gov. Paterson. The one that hit him today might be the most damaging yet.

The state Commission on Public Integrity charged him with violating the state’s gift ban when he accepted free tickets to the first game of the World Series last fall at Yankee Stadium.

The ethics panel also asked Albany County District Attorney David Soares and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to probe whether the governor or anyone else lied under oath to the commission during its investigation of the ticket incident.

Cuomo is already looking into what role if any Paterson played in a Bronx woman who said she was roughed up by a top Paterson aide deciding not to press for an order of protection.

The commission charged today that the Governor violated the state Public Officers Law Sections when he sought and obtained free tickets from the Yankees for himself, his 15-year-old son and his son's friend as well as two aides to the game in the Bronx on Oct. 28. The Yankees are listed as a group that lobbies the administration.

Paterson could have to pay $90,000 in fines if the charges stick.

Paterson told investigators that he always intended to pay the $850 for tickets for his son and the son's friend, but paid for all five he received only after being confronted by a reporter about it, the commission said. The five tickets were valued at $2,125.

Paterson declined to discuss the details of the ticket situation when asked about it by reporters today. But he said he has asked to meet with the commission.

“We also dispute that I solicited anything from the Yankees or acted improperly,’’ he said.

He also denied that he did anything to try to persuade the domestic-violence victim to back off her charges.

"I, at all times, upheld the oath of my office and never at any point attempted to influence or coerce anyone to do anything they didn't want to do," Paterson said.

Legislative leaders said Paterson needs to deal with the charges to clear the decks as they try to agree on a plan to close a $9 billion budget hole.

“These are serious allegations the governor will have to address,’’ said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.

Paterson and the four legislative leaders met briefly in public today to start talking about the budget, which is supposed to be in place by April 1. All just made stock pledges to be responsive and/or resist tax increases.

At one point Paterson asked them what their ideas were for spending cuts to shrink the gap. None had any specific suggestions.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Top State Cop steps down

State Police Superintendent Harry Corbitt said in an interview aired tonight that he is retiring effective tomorrow, becoming the second high-ranking state law-enforcement official to leave office in the wake of the domestic-violence scandal in the Paterson administration.

Corbitt, who served less than two years as the state’s top cop, has been in the center of the storm over whether his subordinates and other administration officials pressured a Bronx woman to back off charges of domestic abuse against David Johnston, a top aide to Gov. David Paterson. Paterson has suspended Johnson while a probe is underway.

Corbitt’s retirement follows last week’s resignation of Deputy Secretary for Public Safety Denise O'Donnell, who blamed Corbitt for misleading her about the involvement of troopers in the incident.

Corbitt complained in the interview to air on Time Warner Channel 9 in Albany that he is being unfairly attacked by the media and others and felt powerless to defend himself.

"Any individual who is criticized constantly feels that pain. And in most cases there is some way to fight back,’’ he says in the interview. “But in public service there is not.’’

Corbitt, the first African-American to head the State Police, climbed the organization’s ladder before retiring as a colonel in 2004. Paterson asked him to come back as superintendent in March of 2008.

His leaving is the latest bit of news that increases the pressure on Paterson to quit. He has said he intends to serve out his term and has done nothing wrong. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating what role if any Paterson had in urging the woman to drop her complaint against Johnson.

The New York Times reported today that two female members of the administration contacted the woman at the behest of the governor.