Friday, January 27, 2012

Primary Date, Redistricting, Budgets and Reproductive Choice: A Busy Week

Breaking Good News
Federal Judge Gary Sharpe has just issued (Friday afternoon) a decision on the non-Presidential federal primary date for New York State.  Judge Sharpe has set June 26, 2012, as the date for the Congressional primary. This is a victory for both the Election Commissioners’ Association and good government groups, including the League. As you may know, the League has had a position on a June primary dating back to 1957.  The federal court was asked to change New York primary date to satisfy the 2009 federal MOVE Act, requiring states to get ballots to overseas military voters at least 45 days before the federal election since the state legislature had not changed the primary date to comply with the federal law. This is also a victory for the voters of NYS; however, if the legislature remains recalcitrant in leaving the state primary election in September, this could set up a three primary election season that would be expensive for local municipalities who administer the elections. It is estimated that it could cost up to $50 million more statewide.

This week was redistricting week in Albany.  We were originally anticipating that these lines would appear on Monday.  And then possibly Tuesday, by Wednesday at 5pm, individual Assembly members were sent by email their own individual district lines.  On Thursday, the much anticipated state maps appeared on the LATFOR website.  The Capitol immediately went into frenzy form.  The Capitol lobby was set up as an impromptu local television studio where I was able to spontaneously give five television commentaries for all the local television stations.  The blogs were going fast and furious with comments from good government groups, including the LEAGUE and individual legislators, particularly in the Senate where opposition to these lines was ferocious. It became apparent as the afternoon went on as analysis of the lines began to come in, especially from our good government colleague Bill Mahoney, of NYPIRG, who discovered that these could be the most gerrymandered lines, particularly in the Senate, in decades.  The Governor late in the day issued a statement essentially declaring these lines unacceptable and again, issued the threat of a veto.  Public hearings on these proposed state legislative lines will begin on Monday, January 30th in Albany.  The League will testify at the hearing in Albany and will continue to critique the flawed process by which theses lines were drawn.  We will continue to call for structural reform to guarantee that these types of partisan lines drawn to maintain incumbency by reducing both competitive elections and legislative responsiveness.  We anticipate following the public hearing that some of the more egregious lines may be sent to LATFOR for readjustment. Stayed tune for updates on the process as it moves forward.

Budget Hearing
Also this week in Albany, the League testified at the Joint Education and Finance Committees. That testimony can be seen on the League website.  The League is also submitting testimony to the transportation committee.

Reproductive Choice
Also, this week a legislative resolution marking the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade was introduced. This resolution went through the health committee in the Assembly with a League memo of support and moved to the floor of the Assembly where it is usually a non controversial voice vote. However, this year the Assembly Republicans made an effort to be loudly in opposition by screaming “NO.”  They were certainly drowned out by the “YES” votes.  However, given the anti-choice sentiment during a presidential election year this must be looked at as concerning. The Republican controlled State Senate refused to issue a similar legislative resolution marking the anniversary.

Next week will bring more redistricting, more budgeting, and the unexpected which can always happen in Albany.  Stay tuned…

Friday, January 20, 2012

State of the Budget

This week in Albany was budget week.  On Tuesday, Gov. Cuomo unveiled his $132 billion 2012-2013 budget.  This budget is being called the Executive Budget and Reform Plan, an Executive budget with a reform twist.
Before starting the budget explanation, the governor made it clear that there would be no one-shots, no gimmicks, no fees, no borrowing and, most importantly, no new taxes to fill the $2 billion gap in the state budget. 
The governor’s intention is to close this year’s budget gap by stemming the growth of state agencies, keeping their spending levels flat and by cajoling the Office of the Comptroller, the Office of the Attorney General and the judiciary to keep their agency funding flat. He also intends to keep local aid growth to 2.6% growth TANF  (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) growth to 5%.  State operations will be maintained at 1.9% growth, and all funds will be reduced .2% from last year’s budget.  Together this will close the budget gap of $2 billion. The state legislature and the Governor had already agreed to a 4% increase in both education and healthcare and that will be reflected in this year’s budget.
The governor then talked about economic development reiterating the $25 billion that will be included in the NY Works Fund.  This is an economic initiated that will give priority to programs which will spur development and produce jobs.  He also intends to fully fund the MTA and, importantly for the League, will include the healthcare exchanges in the budget language which means the legislature will have no choice but to approve these exchanges with adjustments only to the details.  These healthcare exchanges are part of the federal Affordable Care Act which will draw down $100  million in federal dollars. 
Mandate Relief
Governor Cuomo explained that NYS unfortunately does not have a printing press in the basement of the Capitol, unlike the federal government.  Therefore, it just does not have the $8 billion to pick up the counties’ share of Medicaid.  However, the governor did say that the growth of Medicaid to the counties will be capped this year at 3%, next year it will be capped at 2%, and the following year at 1%.  After that the counties’ growth of Medicaid will be held harmless.
Pension Reform
The Governor intends to create a controversial new Tier VI.  He will again put this in budget language which will present the legislature with no options but passage.  At great length, he talked about the fact that the yet “unborn,” meaning the future state workforce, should not be guaranteed the right to a NYS pension.  This new Tier will be 50% cheaper to state and local counties. However, he did make a good argument for the ability of new employees, who do not stay in state service long enough to be vested, to have portability of their pension.
Education Reform
As part of his budget the governor is demanding that the legislature agree to his long held belief that there must be improved teacher’s evaluations.  This is an issue the governor has championed before as part of NYS ability to comply with the federal Race to the Top initiative. NYS stands to receive $800 million federal dollars if it complies with this new teacher evaluation requirement.
According to Bob Magna, the Budget Director, this is the most clear and straight forward budget document in his 25 years of doing state budgets.  It became clear from the Governor’s address that he, like former Governor David Patterson, intends to use the immense power that the Governor has over the legislature to accomplish his legislative initiatives.  The general consensus here in Albany is that this budget will come in early and that this will be a relatively less contentious legislative session.  Of course, for those of us that care about redistricting and campaign finance reform, we can only hope that these issues will be as easily resolved as the NYS budget. 
Next week may bring submission of legislative redistricting lines and a federal judge’s decision on the congressional primary date.  Stay tuned…

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Legislative Session Begins Again

The 2012 Legislative Session began with the Governor’s State of the State message delivered to a packed and enthusiastic crowd in the convention center in Albany.  Cuomo began his State of the State talking about the successes of the last session including the tax restructuring, ethics reform, marriage equality law, and the 2% tax levy cap. He then went on to outline an ambitious economic development plan which comprises three parts. First, he proposes the creation of a public private partnership, including the building of the largest convention center to be located in Queens as part of the Aqueduct racing and the  revitalization of the west side by turning the Javits Center into an economic development project funded by private dollars.  He also outlined an ambitious plan to give 1 billion state dollars to leverage $5 billion in private development in Buffalo.

His second economic initiative deals with gaming to create jobs and to increase state revenues. This will necessitate a constitutional amendment to allow gaming off Indian reservations.  He also talked about infrastructure repair including Tappan Zee bridge, as well as other statewide roads, bridges and flood plains. His third economic development proposal included multiple energy projects which would create jobs, again using the public/private partnership funds. All of these dollars add up to $25 billion which, in Mr. Cuomo’s words, will provide “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The rest of his State of the State dealt with fiscal discipline included mandate relief and reform of the pension system creating a Tier 6.  He reiterated that there would be no new taxes or fees in this year’s budget.  As far as mandate relief concerned, he talked about having public hearings with a robust public discussion and a vote on new mandate relief initiatives by end of session. He talked a bit about education, stating that he will be the students’ “lobbyist.”  At that moment a reporter tweeted “Quick, call JCOPE (new Joint Commission on Public Ethics).” He went on to talk about transforming education with a bipartisan commission of education. There will be educational experts to work with the legislature on new legislation.

At the very end of his speech, he did talk about government reform in the name of campaign finance.  He publicly stated he would send a bill to the legislature to reform the lax and poorly enforced laws in New York.  As stated by Governor Cuomo in his State of the State, he called for comprehensive reform of the state's campaign finance system to make sure that all New Yorkers have an equal voice in the political process. New York ranks 48th in the nation in voter turnout – he recommends that we must reconnect the people to the political process and their government. The Governor called for reforms including a system of public funding, lower contribution limits, and increased enforcement of our state's campaign finance laws. This is a League legislative priority this year as it has been for many years in the past. Our hope is that with the Governor’s backing and a strong coalition of groups around the state, we can finally achieve voter owned elections with lower campaign limits, closure of loopholes of current lax laws, and importantly, better disclosure of contributions and stronger enforcement of campaign violations.

This first week of the legislative session was relatively pro forma in that the Assembly reintroduced bills that had not passed the Senate last session. The Senate confirmed some appointments made during the off-session. Most importantly, the Senate and Assembly party conferences met behind closed doors in lengthy sessions; my assumption is that they talked to their members about pressing, imminent issues including the Governor’s State of the State economic initiatives and the coming state budget. Also, we know that the Senate briefed their members on redistricting focusing on a memo quietly released to LATFOR late on Friday afternoon in which their intention to create a 63rd Senate district when the Senate lines are released shortly.

The session will begin in earnest next Tuesday with the release of the Governor’s 2012-13 Executive budget. The League will monitor the Executive budget and will attend the budget hearings.

The next several days will bring great activity with the release of a federal judge’s decision on New York’s primary date for US congressional elections. This will have a great impact on the redistricting timetable so stay tuned as the League activity around redistricting reaches its climax. We expect the redistricting lines drawn by LATFOR to be released in the next several days with public hearings on the lines to begin by the end of the month. In coordination with its coalition, ReShapeNY, the League distributed a press release yesterday on our continued commitment to redistricting reform which is on the website. We will also be sending out more information on action that local Leagues can take on our continued push for redistricting reform.