Saturday, March 30, 2013

[UPDATED] Mayoral challenger Lovely Warren changes course on marriage equality

Posted By on Sat, Mar 30, 2013 at 4:55 PM

This blog has been updated to clarify that incumbent City Council member Dana Miller did not get the designation of the 24th District. He's the only incumbent Council member to fall short.

Incumbent Mayor Tom Richards won the endorsement of the city's 24th Legislative District committee this afternoon on the march to the Democratic primary in September. He defeated challenger Lovely Warren, who is president of City Council, 35 to 9. The 24th LD is centered in the area around Highland Park.

The biggest news to come out of the meeting, however, is that Warren seems to have changed her opinion on same-sex marriage. Asked about the issue at a different meeting of Democratic insiders a week ago, Warren said bluntly that same-sex marriage is the law in New York State and that she would follow the law.

Today, however, when asked if the federal Defense of Marriage Act should be repealed, Warren said yes and "I don't believe government should tell people who to love." Warren said a conversation with a young man helped convince her that the country had largely "moved on" from the issue, and she compared marriage equality to interracial marriage.

Richards has consistently supported marriage equality.

The 24th LD also designated candidates for five open seats on City Council. The top vote-getters were: incumbents Matt Haag, Carolee Conklin, Loretta Scott, Jackie Ortiz, and newcomer Tom Hasman. Incumbent Council member Dana Miller, who is Council's vice president, did not get the designation.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Legislators wrap up the state budget

Posted By on Fri, Mar 29, 2013 at 9:27 AM

The state budget is done, save the governor's signature on the final legislation.

Late last night — or early this morning, to get all technical about it — the Assembly passed the last of the budget bills. The Senate passed the legislation earlier this week. Once Governor Andrew Cuomo signs the legislation, New York will have its third consecutive on-time budget and its earliest budget since 1983: facts that the governor and legislators are eager to tout. The plan lays out $135 billion in spending.

Whether it's a good budget depends on whom you ask. The budget increases the minimum wage, but includes related tax credits which the labor-aligned Fiscal Policy Institute says could discourage employers from paying above the minimum.

The budget includes a $1 billion increase in education funding — a 4.9 percent increase over last year — and includes $20 million in funding for extended school days. But it cuts funding for people with developmental disabilities by $90 million, despite a bipartisan effort on the Assembly floor to add funding for services.

The budget also contains new tax breaks for businesses, including the motion picture industry. But it doesn't include substantial industrial development agency reform (I posted about this yesterday), which is something the governor wanted.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Is the Rochester mayor's race lacking 'real' Democrats?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 12:39 PM

I noticed something I thought was strange at last week’s meeting of three east-side Democratic committees. The committees were making their endorsements for mayor, City Council, and City Court.

A couple of the ballots in the mayor’s race between incumbent Tom Richards and challenger Lovely Warren came in blank. Why bother to turn them in at all, I asked, if you don’t like either candidate?

A committee member said he thought the blank ballots were a protest. Richards is a “late in life” Democrat, joining the party in 2010 prior to his first mayoral run. And his corporate background doesn’t exactly scream “proud Progressive.”

Warren’s background may fit the Democratic mold better than Richards’ — she’s a lifelong Democrat who endured a hardscrabble upbringing in northeast Rochester — but she’s at odds with the party on a key issue: same-sex marriage. Asked her opinion on SSM, Warren responded tersely at the convention that SSM is the law in New York State and she would follow the law. At a time when even an increasing number of Republicans are “coming out” for SSM, Warren’s response seemed off-key.

Could a perceived lack of “real” Democrats in the mayor’s race keep some Dems at home when it comes time to vote in September? Your guess is as good as mine.

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City schools and the Rochester mayor's race

Posted By on Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 10:03 AM

The mayoral race is officially under way and if past elections are any indication, be prepared for plenty of heated debate about the city school district.

Though the situation is far from perfect, the district and the city have been working more collaboratively over the past two years than at any other time in recent memory. The constant bickering and barrage of barbs that used to go back and forth between Church Street and West Broad Street have nearly trickled to a stop.

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, Mayor Tom Richards, and school board President Malik Evans appear to have a good working relationship. Richards has even participated in Vargas’s expeditions to track down truant students. He’s been able to see up close some of the reasons why many students have missed days or even weeks of school this year.

City Council President Lovely Warren, who is running for mayor this year, was a staunch supporter of mayoral control — a bitterly divisive issue for Rochester — when it was proposed by former mayor Bob Duffy. Though she recently said she would not pursue mayoral control if elected, we’ve all seen politicians back up and drive over their campaign promises.

And Warren is a strong supporter of charter schools; news of her possible candidacy broke several weeks ago at an event inside a charter school.

But who can be critical of Warren for her support for mayoral control and charter schools? Warren sees many city school students not graduating or pursuing fulfilling careers despite an annual district budget of approximately $728 million. Richards has recently voiced some concerns about the district’s budget, too.

But Richards and Warren should know by now that applying more pressure to the city school district doesn't produce meaningful results. Warring with the union and blaming teachers for absenteeism or the social ills that often impact student performance hasn’t made teachers more effective or raised student achievement.

The next mayor will likely discover that the district’s students, parents, and teachers crave stability after years of upheavals and change. Vargas, who wouldn’t comment on the mayoral race, has been trying to provide that stability.

Hopefully, he’ll have a partner in the new mayor.

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Senate veers from Cuomo's proposed IDA reforms

Posted By on Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 9:41 AM

When Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a series of reforms for the state's industrial development agencies, IDA representatives and local elected officials protested. The governor essentially wanted to restrict the agencies' ability to grant exemptions on state sales tax, but local officials said that would rob them of a useful economic development incentive.

Well, perhaps predictably, Cuomo's proposal hasn't stuck; lawmakers negotiated a compromise reform package. The State Senate has already passed the budget bill containing the changes and the Assembly will start voting on budget bills today. (The Assembly will probably support the Senate on the IDA compromise).

In his 2013 to 2014 budget proposal, the governor said that the state currently doesn't have input when IDA's award state sales tax exemptions. He proposed limiting the industries that could receive the exemptions; housing and retail would no longer have been eligible. He also wanted the regional economic development councils and the state economic development commissioner to sign off on the exemptions.

The legislation approved by the State Senate is quite different from that proposal: IDA's would still be able to award state sales tax exemptions and no additional approvals would be required. The agencies would have some additional reporting requirements, but they won't face much in the way of restrictions on which industries can receive tax benefits. Some analyses of the legislation say it would prevent IDA's from giving state sales tax exemptions to some retail projects.

IDA representatives and many local elected officials — though not all — are counting the outcome as a victory. But Brighton Supervisor Bill Moehle says he's disappointed that the governor's proposed reforms didn't stick. Brighton officials have, in the past, been critical of the Monroe County IDA, saying it awards tax breaks to inappropriate projects.

"I like the idea of having the state oversight on the sales tax," Moehle says.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

RPO legal hearing postponed

Posted By on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 2:27 PM

A planned court hearing in a lawsuit against the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra has been postponed until Friday, April 5. The hearing in state Supreme Court was originally scheduled for Thursday, March 28.

Attorney Eileen Buholtz is suing to invalidate the RPO board’s January 23 annual meeting, including the results of board member elections. Buholtz ran for a board seat as a write-in candidate and in her lawsuit she argues that RPO officials didn’t properly notify all of the organization members that would have been eligible to vote. In the lawsuit, Buholtz also alleges that RPO officials didn’t recognize write-in ballots submitted at the annual meeting.

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Out for same-sex marriage

Posted By on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 10:49 AM

David was more than a friend. He was family. We met in New York City shortly before he made the decision to leave teaching in public schools in the Bronx to enter Columbia University’s law school. He was probably the most optimistic person I’ve ever known: a rainbow-flag-waving activist back in the late 1970’s when such things could get you fired or beaten up.

He wasn’t easily intimidated. As a 6 foot 5 inch Puerto Rican Jew with an Afro, wearing a rainbow T-shirt was the least of David’s worries. He was the first person I met who liked being out. He sometimes compared blending in or hiding in the closet to an act of treason to the gay community.

Over and over, he said being out is the single most powerful statement the gay community can make. People can’t change their attitudes about gay people if they don’t know any, he said.

David became an excellent attorney in his own practice, often representing people from minority communities who couldn’t afford good legal services. For the last few days, it’s been hard to get the thought of him out of mind. David often talked about gay marriage and raising a family without the slightest doubt that it would one day be possible. He would have been riveted by the arguments for and against Proposition 8. (He died in the late 1990's.)

There’s plenty of speculation about what the justices will do, with some observers suggesting they won’t act in favor of same-sex marriage based on their questions and comments yesterday. We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m channeling David's optimism.

I’m sure about one thing, however: American’s are increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage mostly because we have gay sons, daughters, grandchildren, co-workers, and neighbors. They’re real people who add meaning to our lives.

And we've become more open about the love we feel for them.

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Perinton town races could open up Lej seats

Posted By on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 9:26 AM

Two Perinton-based seats in the Monroe County Legislature seats could go vacant after the November elections.

Mike Barker, who's served in the Legislature since 2004, announced earlier this month that he plans to run for Perinton town supervisor; incumbent Supervisor Jim Smith isn't seeking re-election. Barker was endorsed by the Perinton Republican Committee last week.

The Republican Committee also endorsed Ciaran Hanna for a Town Board seat. Hanna has served in the Legislature for eight years.

If Hanna and Barker win their races, they'll have to step down from the Legislature. If that happens — and Perinton voters typically elect Republicans to town office — then two new Republican legislators will be appointed by the Lej president within 30 days, with input from the county Republican Party.

Perinton Republicans also endorsed Jen West for re-election as town clerk, Peg Havens for re-election to the Town Board, and Mike Arnold for re-election as town justice.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Secondhand dealer legislation advances in the Monroe County Legislature

Posted By on Tue, Mar 26, 2013 at 11:36 AM

A proposed county law to regulate pawn shops, secondhand dealers, and jewelry and coin exchanges will advance to a vote by the full County Legislature.

Last night, the Legislature's Agenda/Charter Committee approved the legislation, with Democratic Legislator Mike Patterson offering the only vote against it. Patterson said he supported the idea behind the legislation, but he had concerns that it could pose an unfair burden on some small businesses.

Republican Legislator Carmen Gumina is the proposal's sponsor. During last night's meeting, he said the legislation is intended to help law enforcement officials recover stolen property.

The proposed law would require dealers to get a license from the county and would apply to any Monroe County community without preexisting ordinances regulating secondhand dealers. It'd also require dealers to photograph any item they purchase to resell, and to submit that photo to a database operated by the sheriff's office. Dealers would also be required to hold items for 14 days before selling them.

One business owner spoke against the proposal during a public comment session at the start of the meeting. Brian Joseph, who co-owns the Henrietta franchise of Once Upon a Child, said it would create a "logistic nightmare" for his business. Each day, the store buys large amounts of clothing, toys, and other children's goods, and the prices paid wouldn't attract people selling stolen items, he said.

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RCSD budget launches the Vargas years

Posted By on Tue, Mar 26, 2013 at 10:19 AM

This is a corrected version of this story.

In the budget he's proposed for the coming school year, Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas lays out a longer-term vision that marks a clear shift from the past. While the goals and priorities are the same as many of his predecessors’, Vargas is trying a different approach to some old and persistent issues.

The problem is it could be years before we know if he is on the right path to finally turning around the beleaguered city school district.

Similar to prior superintendents, Vargas has made improving student achievement and increasing parent involvement his highest priorities. He has divvied up a $728 million budget to expand instruction time in core subjects by 43 minutes in all elementary schools and longer days in 10 schools. He’s redirecting teachers out of special assignments and back to the classrooms, and he’s adding reading teachers.

Vargas is also emphasizing early childhood education. He wants to offer full-day universal pre-K and shrink the classroom size for grades K-3.

To entice students to come to school, Vargas plans to greatly increase athletic activities. And he wants to add more arts and music programs.

To help entice parents to get involved, Vargas has made a commitment to neighborhood schools.

But despite a shift in strategies, it won’t be easy for Vargas to implement his grand plan.

For starters, his plan to fill a $50.2 million budget gap in the coming school year depends heavily on some big assumptions. Governor Cuomo has included in the state budget a scheme for giving cities and school districts some relief from soaring pension costs, but the component is under scrutiny by legislators in both houses; Vargas is counting on about $17.2 million in savings from the governor’s plan.

Even more troubling is $17.2 million he says can be saved through operational efficiencies. That’s an enormous figure to pull from consolidating programs and reducing the number of teacher and clerical substitutes. Vargas also plans to revamp how special education services are provided and the controversial in-house suspension program started under former Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard.

Vargas says there will be few if any teacher layoffs. And even though more teachers will be reporting to classrooms in this budget, about 300 full-time teaching positions will not be filled due to attrition.

But the plan Vargas has cobbled together to close next year’s budget gap isn’t his biggest challenge; some problems are more systemic. For example, the district will lose about 1,000 students next year, with about 500 moving to area charter schools. It’s a trend that doesn’t show any sign of easing, which makes it extremely difficult to plan for the district’s staff and space requirements.

Vargas says he plans to launch a campaign to promote city schools to suburban parents as a way of stopping the decline in enrollment, but that’s highly speculative.

Vargas also has to implement the far more rigorous common core curriculum with this budget, which could require even more resources. He has already lowered expectations for student achievement, arguing that students and teachers will be working harder than ever but graduation rates and test scores could stagnate.

While Vargas crafted the current year’s budget, the 2013 to 2014 budget clearly puts his thumbprint on the city school district. And the district's critics will soon want to see more in the way of immediate results from an annual budget that’s approaching $1 billion.

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