Friday, March 30, 2012

The Budget and SIA

This week was an extremely busy week not only for state legislators but also for the League.  This was the League’s 12th annual Students Inside Albany conference here in Albany.  For those 37 Leagues that sent students, you picked well this year; they were an extremely dynamic, bright - really good group of kids. Hopefully your local communities will benefit from the experience the League was able to give them for the three days they were here in Albany.  While they were here they had an opportunity to watch the budget agreements, kind of, sort of, play out in only the way Albany can.  

While our students were getting to know each other on Sunday evening the leadership in the Legislature was negotiating the last two sticking points in the 2012-2013 state budget.  Those two issues being  education and health.  In the education budget, the sticking point dealt with the governor who had proposed $250 million in competitive grants statewide and the legislature who wanted that money to go to the high needs districts. After many days of negotiations, the legislature won this one.  The governor ended up getting $50 million and the legislature put $200 million back into high needs districts.  As many League members may remember, in last year’s budget the governor had agreed to add 4% more in education money to this year’s budget; on top of that, the executive budget appropriated a total of $805 million to this year’s education budget. 

 The major controversy in the health care budget concerned the creation of a Healthcare Exchange. The Senate Republicans staunchly refused to go along with the Healthcare Exchange in the fear that they will be accused of supporting “Obamacare”.  With the Supreme Court debating the Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act this very week, the Senate Republicans said they wanted to wait and see if this continued to be the law of the land.  Governor Cuomo is expected to issue an executive order, as this update is being written, that will create the Healthcare Exchange in a state agency.  The advocates had wanted the healthcare exchange to go into its own public authority, however, the governor only has jurisdiction over the state agencies.  This means that New York State can access the federal dollars which would otherwise be lost to the state without these healthcare exchanges.  If the Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act, then it is possible that later this year the governor can go back and ask for new legislation. 
The process this week around the budget is playing out differently than the process two weeks ago when we did the “Big Ugly”.  As you recall, the Big Ugly comprised the redistricting lines, constitutional amendment on structural reform for redistricting, pension reform Tier 6, DNA database, and the constitutional amendment on gambling.  Except for the district lines and the constitutional amendment, the legislation was presented with a message of necessity and importantly in the middle of the night. The governor and the legislature were severely criticized for the process and so it was decided by the governor and the leadership in the legislature that the budget would be done during the day and only after they had been on the desks of legislators for the required three days. This budget is also expected to be passed two days before the start of the new fiscal year. This is important because it allows this governor and the Republican majority in Senate to be able to say that Albany is no longer dysfunctional and that the gears of government are functioning smoothly.

It is expected that the legislature will be out of Albany for most of April and speculation has already begun on what remains to be done in the 2 months left in Session.  Stay tuned for the answer to that question…

Friday, March 16, 2012

Some Things Never Change

For Albany and the New York State legislature this week has been like Ground Hogs day.  We’ve been through this before, whether it be budget or end of session issues. Nothing in Albany gets done unless EVERYTHING gets done. This week redistricting was the fly paper that stuck everything else to it and it became the “Big Ugly” of this legislative session.  Like spring this year which came very early, the Big Ugly, which usually happens around the budget time or end of session, happened last night.
Tier 6, DNA Database, teacher evaluations and a constitutional amendment on casino gambling were all glued to redistricting.  A sane person might ask what do any of these things have in common?  Albany people know the answer to that: Gov. Cuomo wanted ALL of them.  So negotiations on all of those disparate issues had been negotiated for months and redistricting was how it was all going to get done.  The League had no position on any of the issues except our fervent desire to see meaningful structural reform of the redistricting process.  For decades the League has been lobbying every ten years, and in several of those decades during the middle of the decade, to get the legislature to pass a constitutional amendment which would provide for an independent commission to replace the current legislative task force commonly known as LATFOR. (For details on what this Constitutional Amendment would accomplish and frequently asked questions please refer to the Leagues website)
Let me just reconstruct for you a little of the Albany flavor around this Big Ugly.  Legislators came in on Wednesday and went in and out of session accomplishing very little.  As the day dragged on, so did the party conference meetings.  As darkness fell on the capitol, the real work began.  Apparently unaware  of the people’s business going on in the chambers, the state police locked the capitol as they do every night at .  Once it was brought to my attention, and the League has done this probably ten previous times, I walked over to the legislative correspondence hallway to talk to a local reporter.  I’ve gotten very good at this over the past 20 or so years.  Because of our now modern technology of Twitter, 4,600 people knew almost instantly that the Capitol was in lock down.  Next came a trip down to the second floor (governor’s offices) to make the governor’s office apprised of this before they read the tweets (2nd floor does not like to be surprised). I was able to talk to the  governor’s staff and after one phone call to the state police at my suggestion, Viola!  the state street entrance to the Capitol was opened. Yeah! An early reform victory!
By the debate in the assembly on the redistricting lines had been going on for hours.  When the debate started, it was easily noted that there were only 83 of 150 member s in the chamber.  It was also noted that many of the African American/Latino Conference were not on the floor; it was speculated all day that that caucus would have trouble voting for the lines due to their concern about minority districts. 
Meanwhile over in the Senate, the debate on the redistricting lines dragged on for 2 hours and 20 minutes debate until the republicans made a motion to end debate and call for a vote.  The Senate democrats went ballistic! There were a few minutes of screaming at one another and pounding of a gavel and suddenly the democrats got up and walked off the floor.  The lines were voted on and passed; the constitutional amendment on redistricting was voted on and passed by 32 republicans and four independent caucus members and suddenly it was done.  The republicans called it a night and resumed session in the morning.  The Assembly meanwhile persevered through the night dealing with the rest of the Big Ugly, adjourned and left Albany.
The League for years has complained about legislation being passed in the middle of night when citizen Smith and Jones are fast asleep; the further irony this week: this is Sunshine Week.  Albany after all is Albany.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

June Primary Press Conference and Redistricting

June Primary
On Wednesday, March 7th the League along with the Election Commissioners Association of New York State, New York State Association of Counties, New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), and Common Cause/NY held a press conference in room 130 of the Legislative Office building.  This meeting was held to encourage a single, combined congressional and state primary.  The League believes that a single primary is the only and best way to ensure voter turnout does not suffer and that our military men and women are not disenfranchised.  The conference had good media turn-out, with print, radio and television coverage. Please look for it in your local news.  Click here to view the press release.

Redistricting remains an issue on the minds of all legislators here in Albany. This week, Sally Robinson, LWVNYS VP Issues and Advocacy sent an update on redistricting to League members. The League believes that the Governor should use his veto threat, and the power it gives him to negotiate with the Legislature, to not only improve the 2012 lines but also to achieve certain and permanent structural reform to the redistricting process. Permanent structural reform can only be achieved through a constitutional amendment but momentum for this has typically diminished greatly in the years following each redistricting battle. Click here to view more of the redistricting update.