New York's long, colorful history of corruption runs from the patronage mills of Tammany Hall to the string of present-day lawmakers busted for various acts of fraud, bribery, and scheming. So few New Yorkers were shocked late last year when then Assembly member Sheldon Silver and then Senator Dean Skelos were convicted, in separate cases, of fraud and extortion.
The shock came later, when Silver and Skelos, who led their respective chambers before their arrests, were granted their state pensions. The two men had just been found guilty of ripping off taxpayers — though they're appealing their convictions — and were automatically expelled from their seats, yet they'll continue getting government checks.
Some legislators have introduced proposals over the years to change the system, but nothing happened. But the Silver and Skelos scenarios are so galling that the Assembly, Senate, and governor have put pension-stripping legislation at the top of their 2016 to-do list. It's one of many issues they'll consider this year.
Governor Andrew Cuomo baked a heavy agenda into his 2016-17 budget plan. Traditionally, the governor's budget drives the first half of the Legislature session, though the Senate and Assembly move at a glacial pace on some issues and quickly on others. By Albany standards, the next month might as well be a year.
Some of Cuomo's proposals are easy sells. He wants the Legislature to boost education funding by more than $2 billion, set aside $22 billion for Upstate infrastructure projects, and direct more money to a state environmental fund. Those are all generally popular ideas.
But the budget would also increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next five years, establish paid family leave in New York, and provide too much or not enough funding for charter schools, depending on who's talking.
Outside of the budget, the governor and some legislators want to pass measures that place stricter financial disclosure requirements on elected officials and top policymakers, place limits on legislators' outside income, and close a campaign finance loophole.
Much of the information below has been culled from conversations with legislators, local leaders, and advocates, as well as from reports issued by various groups.
Why aren't politicians stripped of their pensions when they're convicted of corruption-related crimes? What will it take to make that happen?
Blame the state's constitution. It guarantees that anybody who pays into the state employee retirement system will receive some sort of pension, based on their length of service and retirement age. And the way it's worded, the constitution makes no provision for taking that benefit away when lawmakers are convicted of fraud, bribery, graft, extortion, or other crimes that involve their office or official duties.
Now, this isn't the case for all New York politicians. State and local public officials who took office after 2011 can be stripped of some or all of their pensions by a court if they're convicted of crimes that involve their position. When legislators wrote that law several years ago, they've required any elected official joining the system to agree to the pension-stripping provision.
But public officials elected before 2011 are still shielded by the constitution unless or until the State Legislature amends that document. The Senate and Assembly each have their own amendment proposals, and the chambers' leaders are in negotiations. For an amendment to take effect, the Legislature must pass it and voters must approve it one year, and then the Assembly and Senate must pass it again the next year.
Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle says that he's concerned about the Senate bill because of how it's structured. The Assembly proposal puts all of its provisions into the constitution, Morelle says. But the Senate's amendment relies on a separate state law, as well as the constitution, to determine whose pension can be severed.
"Constitutional provisions are supposed to be, in the hierarchy, much harder to change," Morelle says. "And so what we've said repeatedly to the governor and to the Senate is we want much more specificity in the amendment itself."
What other ethics measures are legislators talking about?
New York's legislators are part time and are allowed to have other jobs and income. Approximately 40 percent of legislators earn money outside of their elected office, according to a December report from Common Cause New York.
Some legislators and good government groups, including Common Cause, have longstanding concerns that those jobs and earnings can lead to unacknowledged conflicts of interest or abuses of power.
Former Assembly Speaker Silver's case justified some of those fears. During the trial, prosecutors explained how Silver used his influence to direct funding to a doctor and to advance legislation that a developer wanted. The doctor and developer then directed business to a firm that employed Silver and another that split fees with him, according to the New York Times.
The way to avoid that kind of corruption, says Common Cause, is to pay legislators better and prohibit outside income, which would eliminate any conflict.
Morelle isn't quite sold on banning all outside income. He says that the type of work a person does is more significant, and that's what should be reined in. Some jobs will pose a very low conflict of interest risk, he says, no matter how much a legislator earns from the work. But other jobs, such as a lawyer who may appear in front of state agencies, could lead to conflicts of interest when even small amounts of income are involved.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, told a Gannett Albany bureau reporter that he doesn't believe in banning outside income.
Assembly Democrats and Cuomo are also pushing for some specific campaign finance reforms. State election laws cap the political contributions that any person or company can make in a year, and individuals are allowed to donate far more than corporations.
But wealthy companies have found a way around those limits, which critics call the LLC loophole. The State Board of Elections treats LLC's as individuals, which allows corporations to use subsidiary LLC's to contribute larger amounts of money to candidates. A single corporation can also use multiple LLC's to contribute to campaigns and parties.
Assembly Democrats have passed legislation to close the LLC loophole, which Cuomo also supports. Senate Republicans, who generally resist tightening campaign finance laws, have blocked matching legislation in that chamber in the past.
If the Legislature doesn't act on a pension-stripping amendment and ethics reform, is a constitutional convention an option?
Every 20 years, at election time, New York voters get to weigh in on the question of whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. The next vote happens in 2017. A convention would provide an opportunity to amend parts of the constitution, to rewrite sections of it, or to overhaul the whole thing.
The process is a little wonky: If voters decide that the state should have a convention, they'll then have to elect delegates, who convene and decide how the constitution should be altered. The last convention was held in 1967, and not much came of it.
The convention could be an opportunity to reform elections and redistricting or to give the state the power to strip pensions from convicted lawmakers. But the state constitution also grants public workers the right to unionize, provides protection to Adirondack parklands, and requires the state government to provide public assistance to the needy.
Advocacy groups as well as liberals and conservatives have cast conventions as well- intentioned, but with serious potential for unwanted outcomes. Anyone who sees the process as a vehicle for progressive reforms should also be aware, they say, that there's a risk that important protections could be struck from the constitution.
The governor wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. What are the chances of it happening?
If there's one issue that could bring the Legislature and governor to gridlock this year, it's the $15 minimum wage.
Cuomo called for it in his January State of the State address, and has aggressively campaigned for it since. Under his proposal, New York's minimum wage would gradually increase from the current $9 an hour to $15 an hour in 2021.
Legislature Democrats back the increase; the Assembly's Democratic majority passed a $15 minimum wage bill last year and reintroduced the bill this year. The Senate's Republican majority opposes the proposal, however, as do statewide business groups.
A standoff seems inevitable, and it's not clear whether Cuomo, Assembly Democrats, and Senate Republicans are willing to strike a compromise. Cuomo included the wage in his 2016-17 state budget, and disagreement over the proposal could delay the budget's passage.
At this point, the arguments for and against the wage should be familiar to most. Proponents say that the increase is necessary because too many people are working full-time but aren't able to support themselves or their families. The government ends up providing public assistance to those workers in many cases, which means that taxpayers essentially subsidize the employer.
"No one should be forced to work a full-time week and not be able to provide for themselves and for their families," says Democratic Assembly member Harry Bronson.
Because the increase is phased in over five years, he says, businesses will have time to adjust. And the increased purchasing power of minimum-wage workers would help many businesses, he says. An analysis released by Cuomo's office says that the higher minimum wage would boost pay for 166,398 workers in the Finger Lakes region and would pump an additional $1 billion into the region's economy.
But Greg Biryla, executive director of the business advocacy group Unshackle Upstate, says that a $15 minimum wage would be "a real burden on the Upstate New York economy," particularly small employers and the agriculture, nonprofit, and tourism sectors. The businesses he's spoken to say they'd respond to a $15 minimum wage by increasing prices, relocating, laying off employees, or postponing planned hires, Biryla says.
"The ultimate minimum wage is $0," he says. "When people lose jobs, it doesn't matter if other people are making more money if you have a whole new class of people making no money."
The state would be better served by investing in job training and workforce development programs, he says, which would provide opportunities for people to get better-paying jobs. It would also help employers who are having trouble filling middle-skills jobs, he says.
Could 2016 be the year that New York gets paid family leave?
The Assembly has passed paid family leave legislation during each of the past few sessions, including this year. The governor and Senate Independent Democratic Conference have also submitted proposals.
Each of the proposals differs in specifics, but they'd all allow workers 12 weeks of paid leave to care for newborns and seriously ill children, spouses, and members of their immediate families.
Under each proposal, workers would see a small deduction from their paychecks — less than $1 per pay period — which the state would use to pay workers a portion of their regular earnings while they're on leave. The amount of the benefit varies by proposal; the Assembly measure provides up to two-thirds of a person's earnings up to $400 a week.
If paid family leave stalls, it'll be because of the Senate — the Republican majority has blocked past proposals. This time around, however, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan says he's willing to consider paid family leave and that he likes the idea of using an employee contribution system to fund it. But he does have reservations, several of which echo the concerns of statewide business groups.
Unshackle Upstate doesn't oppose paid family leave, Biryla says, but does have suggestions to make the proposals less burdensome on businesses. The leave period should be shortened from 12 weeks to six weeks, he says. And businesses with fewer than either 25 or 50 employees should be exempt, he says, just as they are under the federal unpaid family leave law.
"When you think about a small employer and paid leave, often times you may only have one person in your office that handles accounting, so that person going out is a giant burden," Biryla says. "You may only have one person in your office in a given company that handles HR. So it's not always easy to absorb the loss of that productivity of that employee."
Some paid leave proponents resist the idea of a small business exemption. Their argument is that small business employees still have children, or parents who get sick, and they need to take time off of work.
Paid leave would allow parents to spend time with their newborns during critical first weeks, and is particularly valuable to low-income workers who currently don't have a lot of protections, says Brigit Hurley, policy analyst for the Children's Agenda. Paid leave benefits employers, too, she says.
"Having employees coming back to work two or three weeks after a child is born, there's going to be costs associated with that worker's productivity," Hurley says. "And a worker who's trying to run back and forth from a hospice bed to work, certainly there's an impact on the business with that employee being stressed and distracted and all that. I think that it's sort of a false comparison to say that there's no cost to businesses right now."
Will the state provide more funding for charter schools?
Cuomo's budget proposal includes a $27 million increase in aid to charter schools, but many charter supporters are pushing for more.
New York's charter schools are public schools, but they're given fewer resources per pupil than their district-run peers, says Duncan Kirkwood, Western New York advocacy manager for Northeast Charter Schools Network. Rochester charters get 68 cents on the dollar per pupil, compared to other city schools, he says.
The major problem is that the schools don't receive facilities aid, which is money that could be used to buy, renovate, expand, or lease space, he says. So the schools, which do not charge tuition, have to choose whether they'll use money on staff and programs, he says, or on investments in physical space.
Kirkwood uses Young Women's College Prep on Flower City Park as an example. The school has a room that serves triple duty as a cafeteria, gym, and auditorium, he says, and would have to direct money away from staffing to afford any expansion.
Senate Republicans have included facilities aid for charters in their past two budget proposals, but the money never made it into the final plan. Kirkwood says that he hopes that the Senate includes it this year and that the Assembly approves it.
But any additional money for charter schools will be controversial. Many supporters of public schools as well as the leaders of teachers unions have serious concerns about charters or oppose them outright.
Charters create parallel school systems that drain resources from traditional public schools, they say, and many urban public schools need that money badly.
Some critics also say that charters privatize education, and for that reason they shouldn't receive public funding.