Looks Like Tough Budget Talks Ahead
With only 23 days remaining until the April 1 deadline to pass the state’s 2011—2012 budget, the Democrat-controlled Assembly opened what will probably be their most confrontational front in this year’s battle with Governor Andrew Cuomo on the budget.
The battle lines were drawn in a letter from Queens Assemblymember Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. 69 of 99 Democrats also signed off on the letter.
In it, Nolan details the two major issues on which the letter’s signers disagree with the governor, his proposed $1.5 billion cut in education funding and his amply broadcast opposition to any taxes, which covers his announced refusal to include in his proposed budget $1 billion in tax revenues that would be derived from a surcharge imposed on the incomes of the state’s highest income earners.
Silver indicated his agreement with the points made by Nolan, who is the chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee, and a longtime confidante of Silver.
Silver stated through a spokesperson, “The Speaker wholeheartedly agrees that we should not be giving a tax break to the wealthiest New Yorkers while we are cutting teachers from classrooms, closing senior centers and reducing aid to CUNY and SUNY.”
These positions or sentiments have been stated by some of the Assemblymembers and Silver in recent comments to the media, so they are generally known by the governor and his top aides.
But stated in this manner, it’s almost as if Silver and the 69 of the 99 Democratic Assemblymembers who signed the letter are officially or formally issuing a challenge to the governor on these issues and are capable of blocking passage of the governor’s budget.
Nolan opens by noting Silver has made education a priority for the Assembly and continues, “We are very concerned about the impact of the governor’s budget on education.” While Nolan notes the governor’s budget relies on reductions of appropriations to services to close a budget deficit, she added that “we need to take a more balanced approach to the state’s fiscal challenges.
“The proposed cuts to education lead New York state in a retreat from its legal, social and ethical obligation to provide a meaningful education to all students. The executive [Cuomo’s] proposal cuts $1.5 billion in school funding. As a result, there is approximately a $1.2 billion cut to foundation, most of which funds the neediest school districts, and the neediest students.
“These cuts compromise the promise of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE).”
CFE had brought suit several years ago to assure that education funding was provided and that the neediest schools received their rightful share of funding. A court decision agreed and ordered the state to reimburse them for past years’ short-changing.
Nolan notes that the executive budget would cap all school aid which would result in future increases being reduced to little more than an inflation factor and discourage new investment in school improvement. Nolan continued,
“There are alternatives to budget cuts, the most helpful one being…the current surcharge on high-income personal income taxes.
“The surcharge is now in effect through December 31, 2011. Eliminating the surcharge will reduce state revenues this year by $1 billion. It will cost the state $5 billion next year. Not only do we support the surcharge but, according to the Siena [College] poll last month, 73 percent of New Yorkers across the state strongly support the surcharge. Other polls corroborate the public support. The surcharge will generate significant revenue and represents a fair and balanced distribution of public responsibility during these difficult economic times.
“We must preserve public education for our children and our future…and we urge the Assembly to support alternatives to budget cuts and make our children and their education a priority.”
Considering that Silver agrees with these points, and that 69 Democrats, which is enough to pass anything, indicated that they approve of the positions stated, Nolan’s position paper lays out the battle plan the Democrats will carry into negotiations on the budget with the governor and the state Senate. It looks like we’re in for a donnybrook.
REDISTRICTING WAR HEATS UP: Former Mayor Edward I. Koch traveled to Albany last week to keep up the pressure for an independent redistricting process, but heard firsthand from state Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos that he would not support pending bills intended to do that.
Both bills, one introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the other by state Senator Michael Gianaris (D–Astoria), would create independent bodies that would set the new congressional and state legislative district lines for next year’s elections. Obviously Skelos would not want to give up his prerogatives for establishing the lines for the 2012 elections. Under present laws, Democrats set the lines for the Assembly, which they control, and Republicans set the lines for their house, which they control. So Skelos would not want to give up that advantage because he will want the new lines to reflect some advantages for Republicans to give them the best opportunity to either keep their present 32-30 advantage, or perhaps improve it.
Republicans barely gained control of the senate last year, taking two seats away from Democrats on Long Island, so at a minimum they’ll want to hold on to those districts. But they will also want to change some upstate districts to their advantage to try to offset increases in Democratic population that will help elect Democrats in some cases.
Koch should have been expecting that Skelos would not be keeping the promise he made during last year’s election campaigns to support redistricting carried out by independent commissions. Reports in the news media had reported as much in recent weeks, and senate Democrats formally introduced a package of reform legislation, including Gianaris’ proposal calling for independent redistricting. The Democrats virtually dared Skelos and the GOP lawmakers to keep the promise they made to Koch, but to this point they didn’t take the bait and Skelos made it clear to Koch he was weaseling out on last year’s pledge.
Instead, Skelos said he would pursue a plan to amend the state constitution to address redistricting changes that would meet Koch’s goals.
Skelos also told Koch that although he opposes the pending bills to establish independent redistricting, he would not interfere with his GOP members dealing with the issue however they see fit. But it seems unlikely individual members would turn disloyal against their leader.
However, Koch was described as irate with Skelos’ action, commenting that, “Politics sometimes causes people to give up their decency. It is simply an attempt to derail our entire effort.”
And the 86-year-old warrior is not giving up the fight, either. He said he plans to record a telephone message aimed at Skelos and other legislators trying to block his campaign and to have it broadcast to 100,000 households throughout the state. So we can expect that any lawmaker who follows Skelos’ lead can expect to be attacked in next year’s election campaign.
ADDABBO PLEADS FOR REFORM TOO: State Senator Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D–Howard Beach) was among those joining Koch during his Albany tour. Afterward, he issued a statement supporting Cuomo’s redistricting bill, which establishes a new Independent Redistricting Commission and incorporates parts of the New York Uprising and Gianaris’ approach to independent redistricting.
Addabbo’s news release also states, “The senator insists the state legislators must push for Governor Cuomo’s Redistricting Reform Bill to support changes in redistricting laws and other measures.”
Addabbo, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Elections Committee, also notes that senate Republicans recently introduced their very similar S. 3419 by the Committee on Rules, the Governor’s Independent Redistricting Program Bill.
The lawmaker adds that it is vital for this bill to pass as quickly as possible…because map drawing has to begin this summer to be ready for the 2012 election.
OPPOSE MASPETH BUS DEPOT: Assemblymember Margaret Markey (D–Maspeth) and Councilmembers Jimmy Van Bramer (D–Woodside) and Elizabeth Crowley (D–Glendale) announced their opposition to MTA plans to build another bus depot in Maspeth.
At a rally at the proposed site at 49th St. and Galasso Place, the three lawmakers said they will rally local community and business leaders to stop the project. They also noted there are already two city bus depots in Maspeth which are already choking with commercial traffic.
The rush job in selecting Maspeth as a potential site has raised concerns about the secretive process that gave no notice to the community or elected officials, the three lawmakers said.
MARSHALL TRIBUTE: Queens Borough President Helen Marshall paid tribute to Arnold Bocksel, a resident of Malba and a nationally recognized hero of World War II, who died recently. Bocksel survived the Bataan death march and three years in a Japanese prison camp. He was captured when his ship was bombed in the Pacific Ocean.
Marshall stated, “Bocksel was a recipient of the Bronze Star, Prisoner of War Medal and numerous presidential citations. His experiences and sacrifices remind of the great debt of gratitude owed to our veterans and their wealth of knowledge about our history in the last century.”
Marshall also noted Bocksel’s death came within days of the passing of Frank Buckles, who reportedly was the last of the World War I doughboys who was also a prisoner of war in WWII.
LIU SIDES WITH GOVERNOR IN TEACHER LAYOFFS: City Comptroller John Liu, commenting on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed plans for evaluating teacher performances, stated:
“Rather than attempt an end run around collective bargaining, as the Mayor has tried to do, Governor Cuomo has stood up for both the city’s children and the rights of union members.
“The governor has continued to insist that the state budget he has proposed should not require local layoffs, despite the fact that the mayor has threatened to layoff thousands of teachers and send class sizes skyrocketing, even if the state comes through with major new revenues for the city.”
Liu noted that Cuomo had taken a creative approach to developing a new and more objective standard to measure teacher effectiveness, a methodology developed by State Education Commissioner Steiner and the teachers union that helped ensure New York’s success in the Race to the Top competition.
“New York is not Wisconsin, and the kind of leadership Governor Cuomo has shown stands as an example for other states,” Liu said.
MALONEY HITS RELIGIOUS MISTREATMENT IN IRAN: Congressmember Carolyn Maloney (D–Queens/Manhattan) expressed concern last week about the treatment of Baha’is in Iran, particularly the seven leaders of that sect who were convicted in August 2010 in a procedure that lacked any semblance of due process and was widely condemned by human rights leaders.
Maloney said, “Recent reports suggest that the seven Baha’i leaders have been transferred to more dangerous areas of the prison in which they are being held. Additionally, a series of arrests of Baha’i adherents began in Isfahan on February 13. The fate of those individuals is currently unknown, but those arrests suggest that the Iranian government is continuing its persecution of members of the Baha’i faith.”
Maloney declared, “Freedom of religion is a basic human right. The United States has always been committed to defending religious freedom around the globe. The world must be vocal in its condemnation of the Baha’i people at the hands of a brutal government.”
She urged the Iranian government to release the imprisoned Baha’i because of their religious beliefs and to treat all minorities with tolerance.
ACKERMAN BACKS LIBYAN UPRISING VS. QADDAFI: Simultaneously amazed at the courage and determination of the Libyan people’s uprising to recover their freedom and disgusted by the vicious and barbaric response by Qaddafi, Congressmember Gary Ackerman (D–Bayside/L.I.) applauded President Barack Obama’s actions in calling for Qaddafi’s ouster.
Ackerman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said the U.S. must stand with the people in this wave of uprisings, who are demanding the same political and civil rights Americans enjoy every day.
LAWMAKERS BLAST SENIOR CENTER CLOSINGS: State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver vowed the beginning of March that he was committed to keeping senior centers open, as he did last year when they faced closures such as the ones the city announced last week as well.
State Senator Michael Gianaris also reacted to the announcement of the possible closures.
“For so many seniors these centers serve as a crucial lifeline to the outside world. While we are forced to cut costs during this difficult economic time, we must make the hard decisions in a way that minimizes the impact on the most vulnerable New Yorkers. Our seniors have done so much for us, the least we can do is make sure they have the ability to enjoy their golden years with respect and dignity,” he said.
Assemblymember Catherine Nolan (D–Ridgewood) stated, “Potential closures of Queensbridge and Ravenswood senior centers would be a great loss to our community. We need to make sure our seniors have a place to go.”
Joining Nolan was Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D–Woodside) who declared, “It is unacceptable to close both the Queensbridge Riis Senior Center and Ravenswood [since] 90 percent of individuals who use senior centers are below the poverty line and to close these centers would take away the core services that our seniors need to live happy and healthy lives. These cuts are devastating [and] we cannot and will not balance the budget on the backs of our seniors. We will fight to keep these doors open.”
After failing to save senior centers from being shut down as Gov. Cuomo went ahead with proposed funding cutbacks, state Senator Toby Stavisky (D–Whitestone) and Assemblymember Grace Meng (D–Flushing) blasted the decision which will lead to 22 centers closing in Queens and 102 citywide, announced by the city last week.
Stavisky and Meng said the closings would deprive seniors from meeting with friends and having meals at the centers.
GENNARO BILL ‘ALLEVIATES’ PARKING ANXIETY: A bill that would prevent issuance of parking tickets written while a driver walks away from his vehicle to pay for a muni meter ticket has been introduced by Councilmember James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows).
With this package of bills, Gennaro said, referring to other traffic ticket-related bills filed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, gone are the days when drivers feel the city is picking at their pocket.
Quinn stated, “This is bureaucratic red tape at its absolute worst, the stuff that makes New Yorkers think government is out to nickel-anddime them. We’re going to change that policy, so if you show your receipt to the agent, they have to tear up your ticket on the spot.”
Under Gennaro’s bill, parking agents would have to immediately cancel parking tickets when they are shown, within 10 minutes of ticket writing, a valid muni-meter receipt with a time-stamp within five minutes before or after the completion of ticket-writing.
Under the present policy, Gennaro pointed out, the city is permitted to ticket any vehicle without a receipt on its dashboard. This legislation would allow drivers to avoid contesting these types of tickets in court.
DENDEKKER WITHDRAWS ‘BIKE’ BILLS: Assemblymember Mike DenDekker (D-Jackson Heights) reports he has withdrawn two recently-introduced bicycle-related bills. He stated:
“I introduced these bills (A-5429 and A- 5430) in response to numerous complaints from my constituents regarding bicyclists who were not following local and state laws, and causing dangerous conditions for pedestrians and motorists alike. In this way, the original intent of these bills was to enhance pedestrian and bicycle safety through increased accountability. However, we will now explore future options to achieve stricter enforcement of the bicycle regulations.”
WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH DURING MARCH: Women’s History Month will be observed during March and state Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Whitestone) reminds us, “this is a great opportunity to reflect not only on how women have shaped our society, government, culture and all aspects of our lives, also the inequalities that remain, particularly the absence of equal pay for equal work”, she says.
Stavisky became the first woman from Queens to become a state senator when she took the post in 1999, marking her bit of personal history alongside other New York women, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Shirley Chisholm and two present-day U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
HALLORAN OPPOSES CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTER BILL: Councilmember Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) is opposing the proposed bill that would require religious crisis pregnancy centers to post that they do not provide abortions or refer patients to abortion providers.
Halloran, an attorney, states, “The bill is overbroad and will not survive constitutional challenge. A similar bill with far less draconian elements was struck down as unconstitutional by federal courts in Maryland.”
The proposed bill, he says, “even calls for criminal incarceration for violations of its ‘signage regulations’. This is an outrage and abuse of government power.”
BRAUNSTEIN BILL BANS ‘DANGEROUS BATH SALT’ DRUGS: Legislation that would ban the sale, manufacture, possession and distribution of so-called bath salts in New York state has been introduced by freshman Assemblymember Edward Braunstein (DBayside).
“These dangerous bath salts, which are smoked, snorted or injected, are actually a dangerous series of chemicals similar to methamphetamines, which cause extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, agitation, hypertension, chest pain, headaches, heart attack, stroke and suicidal thoughts,” Braunstein said.
They are sold online and in convenience stores and smoke shops under many names, he says, and have been labeled as a drug of concern by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). They also have recently been found for sale at stores in Manhattan and near the state capital in Albany.
These bath salts are not the same as aromatic bath salts. One bill he proposed would add them to the state’s list of Schedule I drugs, thereby classifying them as a controlled substance.
Braunstein was elected last year to fill the seat vacated by Ann Margaret Carrozza, who retired.
NEW HEAT LAW TOUGHER ON LANDLORDS: The Public Advocate Bill de Blasio sponsored HEAT bill, which will toughen penalties on landlords who repeatedly fail to provide heat for tenants, was approved by the city council last week.
The legislation, entitled Heat Enforcement for All Tenants Act, will raise the maximum fine for heat violations to $1,000 per living unit for up to two years.
De Blasio explained, “We don’t want a single New York family to face another brutal winter without heat. We are changing the economics so that landlords will think twice before turning off their tenants’ heat just to save money.
“This bill sends a clear message to bad owners that heat and hot water are necessities that cannot be neglected,” Committee on Housing and Buildings Chair and Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan (D-Brooklyn) said.
The bad winter weather, punctuated by record snowfalls, no doubt helped the bill toward passage. So far this winter, de Blasio said the city, through the 311 phone line, has received more than 72,000 heat complaints from tenants throughout the city, according to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). According to de Blasio’s office staff, 23,822 of those calls were specifically from Queens residents. The following zip codes were the source of most heat complaint calls: 11385 got 1,481 calls, 11691 got 1,077 calls, 11377 got 1,062 calls and 11435 got 921 calls.
The bill passed will increase penalties on repeat offenders who are issued multiple heat violations, de Blasio said.
AVELLA SAYS NO TO QUEENSBORO/KOCH NAME CHANGE: State Senator Tony Avella (D-Bayside) opposes changing the name of the Queensboro Bridge in honor of former Mayor Edward Koch.
Avella joins Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and also a poll taken by the Queens Chamber of Commerce, in opposition to the name change. The proposal is scheduled to be voted on shortly, with indications the name change will however be approved.
Avella, who once served as an aide to Koch when he was mayor, signaled his position in letters to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was the prime sponsor of the name change, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Avella stated, “Despite my deep affinity and respect for Mayor Koch, I think it is completely inappropriate to be naming the Queensboro Bridge after him at this time. First of all there should be a moratorium on all bridge renaming while the city is facing a fiscal crisis. In addition, this renaming flies in the face of the general rule against the naming of public structures in honor of living persons.
“As a lifelong Queens resident and as an elected official representing parts of Queens, it is particularly disturbing to see a hallmark of Queens history stripped of its association to the borough.