Everything and Nothing is Going On

cuomo

It’s been tough to come up with stuff to write about lately. It’s an odd time of year, with nothing and everything going on all at once. The stuff I usually write about is quiet – the inside baseball parade of political fumfering and failure. The stuff I generally avoid is really hot – Hillary, Cruz, Rubio, Bush, I can’t care. Not yet. In the meantime, the school budgets are being formulated and that has almost all my free attention as I work with a great team of dedicated volunteers to make sure we do right by schoolkids. Of course, there’s also the imbroglio over “high stakes” testing of whether elementary school kids are learning anything, and the idiotic war that Governor Cuomo has decided to wage on teachers, basically upsetting a long-dormant hornet’s nest, as someone characterized it to me Tuesday night.

I’m up to two (maybe three) people who are running as Democrats for the County Legislature this year who have announced, and whose press releases I’ve received. One in Lancaster/Cheektowaga, one in Amherst. I couldn’t tell you their names, what they stand for, or anything else about them. My guess is that Pigeon’s JV squad will sit this year out, seeing as how Preet’s all up in their business right now. Pigeon’s too busy calling Bob McCarthy every day and chatting him up about Hillary or how Preet’s got nothing on him, etc. To his credit, Bob’s Transcription Service, Ltd. is only too pleased to serve.

On Facebook, I’ve already seen a Hitler / Hillary comparison, so that was quick. I’m also reminded of the 2008 election and how much all the right-wing commentators had effusive praise for Hillary because she wasn’t Obama. Now, of course, she’s Satan, Stalin, and Hitler wrapped up in an ISIS flag waving over Benghazi, and a bucket of deleted emails.  Is she the best candidate the Democrats could put up? I don’t know, but never count the Clintons out. Given the state of the GOP roster so far, she should win in a walk, because Ted Cruz is a hateful demagogue, Jeb Bush is this year’s Romney, Rubio has tons of empathy for the beleaguered ultrawealthy and a healthy hatred of gays, and Rand Paul is an intemperate pseudo-libertarian. Know this: Paris Hilton doesn’t need any more tax cuts, and it’s sickening to witness families whine about paying taxes on estates valued in excess of $10 million. How are we supposed to pay for all of your guys’ wars?

I occasionally switch on Sky News on my Apple TV, and the UK is in the middle of a general election they called on March 31st, and which is being held on May 7th. By contrast, we’re talking about an Iowa Caucus process that’s nine months away, and an election that is a year and a half away. Billions will be spent on our election, voters will be treated like brainless sheep, Hillary will win, and we’ll have four (maybe eight) more years of utter nonsense. Anyone who says our system is the bestest in the whole world, ever, is not very informed.

In the meantime, my Facebook timeline is absolutely overrun with people opting their kids out of the state exams. We did not opt our 3rd grader out because exams are a part of life. I don’t have to like them, and neither does she, but if they’re there, she’ll take them. We don’t put any pressure on her, nor did her teacher. She was told it was all stuff they had already learned, and to just do her best. She came home exclaiming how “easy” they were the first two days, and she high-fived me.

I don’t begrudge parents opting out, nor do I mean them any disrespect – they know their own kids best & you do what you need to do. But in my experience, if I’m anxious about a thing, my kids are going to pick up on that and, in turn, also be anxious about that thing. If I’m ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ NBD do your best, there won’t be tears or trauma.

I understand that it’s unfair the way that Cuomo wants to evaluate teachers (see the hornet’s nest comment, above), and if they manage to legislate these tests away, good for everyone. But some of what I saw being used to advocate for opting out – whether it was tests that the parents can’t understand or don’t like, or the fact that a private company – Pearson – is involved – just wasn’t persuasive. Ultimately, I don’t like teaching a 3rd grader that it’s ok to disobey authority or break the rules. No one’s being asked to do anything untoward or outlandish – just to read a passage and answer questions, or to maybe write a short essay.

I’m not embracing the tests – I’m just not going to intervene to save her from participating in pointless, harmless nuisances because there’s suddenly a movement to do so. Finland, for instance, doesn’t do memorization and testing. Are we going to become like Finland? Not in a million years, but if that’s not the goal, then what is?

if we want young people with the competencies to innovate and make our economy more competitive, we need to model our schools after how innovation actually happens. “Teaching and learning have traditionally been conceptualized as linear, deterministic procedures,” he wrote in a paper on economic competitiveness and education. “Innovation is an organic entity. Teaching and learning in schools should rely on principles of active participation, social interaction and reflection”…

All of this school reform that’s sprung up since “No Child Left Behind” had pretty widespread support a decade ago, and few alternatives have been publicly discussed or debated beyond just going back to how things used to be. Instead of focusing on the tests, which are merely a symptom of the testing & accountability scheme, why aren’t we discussing adopting the Finnish model? Or something.

As for the “I can’t do my kid’s homework”, frankly, I should hope that education has progressed enough in the 30 years since I graduated high school that the work my kids do is somehow done differently, and something I can’t comprehend or recognize. I should hope that ways of teaching concepts has evolved over time, and that maybe my kids can teach me a thing or two.  The whole thing reminds me of jokes in Mad Magazines from the 1960s with obscure jokes about the “new math”.

I also saw articles excoriating Governor Cuomo because StartupNY has only created about 76 jobs. The Conservative Fusion Party has entered an unholy alliance with the the Working Families Fusion Party and other progressive activist organizations to demand its destruction. They’ve declared StartupNY to be a failure because it’s spent a lot on marketing, and has little to show for it.

StartupNY, however, cannot by definition add millions of jobs in just a few years. It is set up to help new and existing businesses grow tax-free within certain areas, but these companies are either small or brand-new. According to the last press release from the governor’s office, the 83 businesses that have joined the program have pledged to create over 2,000 new jobs. The program launched in 2013, and how many jobs did people expect in less than two years? If you look at the roster of companies, they’re all brand-new, still developing their product, or otherwise in transition. I know that people can’t be patient anymore, but maybe we can take a little bit of time and let this program run its course. Simply abolishing it in mid-stream, violating agreements with the schools and companies who have signed on, doesn’t seem very prudent.

But the most obnoxious, most cynical thing about this is the Conservative Fusion Party or Working Families Fusion Party demanding StartupNY be abolished and that taxes be lowered across the board. Great, guys! Considering how you’ve both been in existence for at least a decade, and how each of you purportedly vets, endorses, and runs candidates on your line who eventually win and enter government, why is it that none of this has happened? Are you so weak and ineffectual that you can’t influence your own candidates to accomplish things you agitate for? If anything, the ineffectiveness of StartupNY is dwarfed by the collossal pointless waste of the fusion system and its beneficiaries throwing shade at a Cuomo program that’s still in its infancy.

Here’s something new, though. I was recently appointed a trustee of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Everyone there has been so welcoming, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the library system that I never before knew. The system itself, and the staff at the central branch are simply incredible. They are so knowledgable, so enthusiastic about what they do, and incredibly eager to make the library a safe, welcoming place to learn.

But the rare books – Tuesday night I attended a reception hosted by trustee Wayne Wisbaum, and library staff were present along with priceless, incredible treasures. These materials are owned by a library system in a small city that’s just starting to, at least psychically, overcome generations of decline. Yet here is an original edition of the Federalist Papers that John Jay gave to Thomas Jefferson, and in the margins of the book are Jefferson’s hand-written annotations and notes. I was inches away from it, and I could have stared at that annotation for hours, mesmerised. There were cuneiform tablets, a handwritten letter from George Washington asking for troop reinforcements, a handwritten letter from Thomas Jefferson about smallpox innoculation, a letter from Mark Twain that had been found in a first edition of one of his books, a book with incredible, intricate fore-edge art, and a unique and incredible map of the world from 1475. These are things that I had never seen, or was completely ignorant about, or had no idea existed in Buffalo before a few months ago.

Hey, at least it stopped snowing.

New York School Districts Left Guessing

School districts throughout New York State are now busily plotting out their budgets for the 2015 – 2016 school year. These budgets must be in final form by mid-April so that school boards can adopt their budgets in time for the public to vote on them by late May.

Every district relies on some amount of state aid for every year’s budget, and the state legislature’s unconscionable and cynical “Gap Elimination Adjustment” has short-changed New York’s public schools in the tens of millions of dollars.  Albany balances its own budget by robbing the state’s students of teachers and programs. Governor Cuomo then turns around and relies on standardized testing to determine which schools and teachers are “failing” or “non-performing” while refusing adequately to fund any of it.

In past years, districts had, by now, been given a close estimate of how much state aid they would receive, so that they could work on the local share of their revenue budgeting in an informed way. This year, however, is different. School districts are completely in the dark about how much state aid they might receive, and it’s making budget planning one big guessing game.

Governor Cuomo has introduced an education reform plan that would add just over $1 billion in public school funding; however, this increase in state aid comes with some big strings attached, and no one knows if it’ll pass – and in what form – by April 1st. We hear a lot about “on-time” budgets, as if it’s a laudable cause for celebration that the state legislature manages to accomplish its one real job in any given year. But what about the right on-time budget? Cuomo has said that no school district will see an increase in state aid over last year if his conditions are not met.

Cuomo wants five things:

1. A five-year probationary period before teachers receive tenure;

2. The ability to appoint receivers to manage the lowest 5% of non-performing schools;

3. A simplified teacher dismissal hearing procedure;

4. 100 more charter school slots statewide; and

5. Changes to the teacher evaluation system that Cuomo already implemented, relying more on testing and outside evaluators.

Republicans in the State Senate, meanwhile, have proposed a $1.1 billion increase in state school aid in an effort to roll back the Gap Elimination Adjustment. It’s estimated that it would take a $1.9 billion increase in state aid this year to restore state funding of schools to 2008 levels.

Cuomo is also proposing to do away with the STAR property tax exemption and replace it with a property tax relief credit that would phase in depending on the value of your home and your income – it disproportionately benefits downstate homeowners whose assessed property values are very high.

So, we have to rely on a dysfunctional Albany system and the three men in a room to negotiate an education reform and funding equation by April 1st, so that school boards across the state might be able adequately to plan their budgets for the next school year. The assault on public education – against students, teachers, and parents – has many fronts. The biggest threat, however, is treachery from within. It defies logic to simultaneously de-fund schools in order to balance the budget and demand that teachers, students, and schools are declared “failing” or “performing” based on a few standardized tests.

This simply isn’t how learning should look.

The Banality of Albany Corruption

Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com

Sheldon Silver lost his speakership because he’s been indicted on corruption and bribery charges. So far, it’s been a banner year for antidemocratic and corrupt practices to be shown the light of day. The common denominator is bad government, and why we elect horrible people to

1. ICYMI, the Buffalo School Board has abandoned all pretense of being responsible public servants.

2. Brooklyn Democrat, serial sexual harasser, and former Assemblyman Vito Lopez is settling lawsuits alleging that he was a creepy sex fiend misogynist groper. Well, that is to say that the state is settling these allegations to the tune of $545,000.  It’s taxpayer money – Lopez is only personally on the hook for about $35,000 of it. This isn’t just Lopez’s disgrace, but sheds light on how corrupt and shameful Sheldon Silver’s Assembly had become.

3. Former State Senator George Maziarz is accused of directing his staff to destroy campaign finance information soon after federal investigators began sniffing around. It might be ok to follow standard record-destruction timelines, but not so much if you’re simultaneously destroying evidence.

4. Former State Senate President, Democrat Malcolm Smith, was convicted of bribery charges last week.

Federal prosecutors had charged that Smith, with the help of $200,000, tried to bribe his way onto the GOP ballot by spreading money around to GOP power brokers. Smith was arrested in 2013, but continued to serve as a rank-and-file state senator, though his fellow Democrats did not allow him to conference with them. He was ousted by voters in Queens last fall in a Democratic primary election.

Also charged in the case was former Queens Republican boss Vincent Tabone. Smith, as a Democrat, needed to secure backing from GOP leaders in order to qualify for a place on the 2013 mayoral ballot on the GOP line. Tabone was convicted along with Smith Thursday. A former New York City councilman, Daniel J. Halloran III, had already pleaded guilty in the case.

Did you catch that? Smith was convicted of trying to bribe Republicans in Queens to give him a Wilson Pakula to run for Mayor on the Republican line. Electoral fusion is legalized corruption, and I have to imagine that this sort of quid pro quo is not at all unique to Mr. Smith.

5. Here’s another depressing story from the Albany Project. This one is about Cuomo mega-donor Leonard Litwin, a New York real estate tycoon. Litwin donated $1 million to Cuomo’s re-election campaign and $500,000 to the state Democratic committee, underscoring the toothless pointlessness of our campaign finance rules. Litwin also happened to be client of the small law firm Goldberg & Iryami, which is linked with the Sheldon Silver corruption prosecution and specializes in Article 7 real estate tax challenge suits. Litwin used the LLC loophole to get all that money (including $200,000 to Silver), to recipients.

Litwin recently booked a $260 million sweetheart loan through the NYS Housing Finance Agency to finance a luxury apartment project in Manhattan. The NYSHFA was run by a Cuomo appointee who was recently promoted, and is now Cuomo’s chief of staff.

Back when John McCain was a serious person, he’d talk of campaign finance reform to abolish what he called the “iron triangle” of special interests, money, and legislation. In New York, no one with any real authority has seriously taken up that cause, except for a federal prosecutor in Manhattan. In New York State politics, that triangle isn’t made of iron, it’s made from graphene, which is stronger and more expensive.

Furthermore, if anyone is to take up the cause of cleaning up state politics, they’ll have to lead by example and not cop out and be just as corrupt as everyone else.

I think we deserve better than this. Don’t you?

Parsing the Concern-Trolling Fracker

frac_truckIn late 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo banned horizontal hydrofracking in New York State. While this will likely have some unknown, untested economic downside, it will eliminate the risk of environmental damage or catastrophe. This is a good thing, on balance.

Not everyone is pleased, however. Consider this “Another Voice” in the Buffalo News. To call it concern-trolling is kind; it is an appeal purely to emotion. Rush Limbaugh or the editorial board of the New York Post couldn’t have written anything better, and the only thing missing is an “Il Duce” reference to Cuomo’s Italian heritage, and some sort of irrelevant side-swipe at the NY SAFE Act.

We begin with ad hominem attacks on “Ithaca” and “Park Avenue”(?) liberals, who would be the caricature, I suppose, of the typical anti-fracking, pro-environment activist.

New York’s hardened anti-hydrofracking environmentalists are whooping it up! The hills of Ithaca and the lowlands of Park Avenue are alight with joy. Like-minded billionaires in California have joined the party, too. Their investments are finally paying off.

With the help of well-placed funds and attention-grabbing headlines, they have moved an entire political system into their self-serving camp. No wonder they are calling New York’s continued moratorium on fracking a huge victory. And it is. It is a huge pyrrhic victory.

I’m wondering what is “self-serving” about wanting to protect our shared environment? What is “self-serving” about wanting to avoid, e.g., the public cost of cleaning up some sort of environmental disaster? Isn’t that the opposite of self-serving? Is there some direct, pecuniary benefit that Ithaca or Park Avenue derive from a fracking ban?

There’s a lot of “pity the poor oil companies” going on.

Let’s break it down into winners and losers.

The progressive elites in New York’s well-heeled communities win. But why shouldn’t they? They have a long history of winning. Nuisances like the truth have no place at these heights.

Every time this author references “progressive elites,” I’m suspecting he’s too geographically ignorant to know that “Park Avenue” isn’t what he was looking for. He’s imagining this stereotype, as Woody Allen described in Annie Hall: “New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper…”

More and more, this game of shutting down oil and gas development is done at the pleasure of the rich. They are pulling the strings from the shadows. Some are, no doubt, good people with good intentions, but many are using their extreme wealth to blur the lines in a war they are waging on the prosperity and well-being of America and Americans.

Then there’s the Hollywood crowd, many of them unfamiliar with the ivy walls of higher education but fabulously wealthy nonetheless. They jet into events on private planes, dumping carbon onto the rooftops of the less privileged.

In brief, these are the winners. And that’s OK, because they are already winning at the game of life. They should win. But this time their victory has come at our cost.

So, the people who are opposed to hydrofracking are the wealthy “Park Avenue” crowd, and the wealthy “Hollywood” crowd. I suspect that the author is referring to Mark Ruffalo, who is a vocal fracking opponent who also happens to live in New York. In fact, his interest in fracking came in reference to land his family owns in upstate Sullivan County. So, you know, substitute “Callicoon” for “Hollywood”, and you’re on the right track.

Notice, however, the glaring omission of any evidence – even a mention – of the way in which these rich caricatures benefit in any way from a fracking ban. Instead, we have this appeal to what someone on the right would typically call “class warfare”, if the shoe was on the other foot:

Now for the losers. That’s you and me. That’s the farmers who saw their neighbors to the south in Pennsylvania collect fees of up to $5,000 an acre and royalties of close to 20 percent on $7 million wells. They won’t be sending their children to the same universities as the Cornell crowd. There is no moneyed legacy in these battered little towns and rural communities. They don’t have a voice. So in this case the well-heeled progressive crowd was able to do what the powerful always do – crush the less well off.

Well, no. It’s not “you and me”.

I’m not a fracking “loser” here, because I was never slated to collect any fees or royalties on my property. Chances are you weren’t, either. Furthermore, because fracking is allowed in states that have analyzed the relative costs and benefits of that extraction method and reached a different conclusion, I actually get the benefits of cheaper natural gas without the potential environmental difficulties. Sounds to me like a win/win for New Yorkers who are not directly affected by dint of location.

So, some hypothetical farmer in the Southern Tier won’t benefit from a huge petro-windfall of cash money, and we’re going to throw shade at Cornell – sorry the “Cornell crowd”? Furthermore, what’s absolutely astonishing about this editorial’s use of class warfare is the supposition that all of these super-wealthy pointy-headed nerds at Cornell, alongside the Hollywood and “Park Avenue” communists conspired to shut out the poor, lowly oil companies. If only these oil and gas companies could come close to competing with the juggernaut of Ruffalos and Finger Lake eco-nerds!

There are 62 hydrofracking operators in Pennsylvania, and that they have racked up 3,880 violations resulting in almost $6 million in fines. For instance, there have been 141 violations since 2009 for “discharge of pollutional material into waterways of the Commonwealth”. How dare these New York liberal elites fight for clean water!

Furthermore, Pennsylvania is unique in that it refuses to tax natural gas production in the state. It imposes some drilling fees,

But revenue generated by the fee has not kept pace with production. Gas pulled from the ground in Pennsylvania doubled from 2011 to 2012, soaring from a yield of roughly 1 trillion cubic feet the first year to more than 2 trillion the next. Yet the flow of money from the impact fee actually decreased in that same interval. The state brought in roughly $204 million from the fee in 2011. The following year, revenue dropped to $202.5 million.

Between 2012 and 2013, revenue from the fee increased by 11 percent, jumping to a record high of close to $225 million last year. But the leap was significantly smaller than the overall rise in production. Natural-gas output increased by more than 37 percent in the same period, when it rose to 3.1 trillion cubic feet, according to Pennsylvania state estimates.

It’s safe to assume that, had New York permitted this sort of fracking, it’d have taxed the crap out of it. But our Park-Avenue-and-Cornell-hating correspondent argues that the poor loser farmers in the Southern Tier were the out-spent victims of professors and rich Park Avenue Hollywood types. But if 2013 natural gas production in Pennsylvania reached 3.1 trillion cubic feet, presumably these companies – the implication being that they’d jump right into production in the Southern Tier of NYS – could have used a tiny bit of their revenue to advocate for people and policies that would have brought about fracking? Are the poor gas companies too impoverished to help out these downtrodden farmers who are losing out on millions in royalties and leases?

Natural gas is traded on the NY Mercantile Exchange in $x per million BTU. If you take that measure and multiply it by 1.025, you get the price per thousand cubic feet. Right now, about $3.10/mcf. So, 3.1 trillion cubic feet is worth about $3.17 billion right now. Surely, the poor, downtrodden farmers could have benefited from some of that money being thrown around to, say, elect Rob Astorino, right?

So now that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has talked the talk, will he walk the walk? In this case, he would personally stop using carbon-based fuels, since he is disallowing the production of them. He would ask his friends to park their planes and dock their yachts. He would not want to be seen as a taker. He would shut off the heat in his house. He would eat cold food. He would start walking foot trails only (after all, pavement is carbon-based, too).

This is some fundamentally stupid bullshit. It’s an argument by 14 year-old would be embarrassed to proffer. So, if someone who lives in Westchester County opposes nuclear energy, they should take themselves off the grid? Andrew Cuomo isn’t a hypocrite if he bans fracking and uses fossil fuels; he’d be a hypocrite if he banned fracking while owning land where fracking wells were present. All the Cornell professors need to “park their planes and dock their yachts”? Why the hatred against the wealthy, son? I mean, should an Obamacare opponent quit his health insurance and use cash for all doctor’s visits? My tax dollars go to pay for things I disagree with on a daily basis. Do I move to Monaco and renounce my citizenship, lest some dummy call me a hypocrite in the Buffalo News?

Anything less and Cuomo could paint himself as a phony. That would not bode well for his political ambitions, at least for those of us who believe that politicians are capable of the truth.

I get the distinct impression that this writer’s concern with Cuomo’s “political ambitions” is disingenuous, don’t you? What about that author, by the way?

Dan Doyle is president of Reliance Well Services, a hydraulic fracturing company based in Pennsylvania.

Because of course he is. Reliance Well Services is based in Erie, PA and counts Chautauqua, Alleghany, and Cattaraugus Counties as being within its territory. It operates “frac trucks” which are used to support drilling activities. Presumably, opening up the three NYS counties closest to Erie, PA to fracking would have resulted in a professional bonanza for Mr. Doyle and his company.

Mr. Doyle throws shade at Cornell professors and downstate activists for acting out of “self-interest” without defining or backing up that allegation in any way. He invokes the poor, downtrodden farmer as the real “loser” in this scenario, and demands that Governor Cuomo revert to a 18th century way of living for refusing to open up NYS land to hydrofracking. But in the end, the only one with “self-interest” is Mr. Doyle, who couldn’t be bothered to simply be honest about the fact that Governor Cuomo dealt a blow to his business plan and bottom line.

Pennsylvania may have a great need for the revenue that fracking delivers (despite the fact that its tax and regulation scheme leaves a lot to be desired). New York State coffers can rely on other, dependable, renewable sources of tax revenue to help keep it afloat. (See Wall Street, e.g.) The NYS unemployment rate stands at 5.9%. In Pennsylvania, it’s 5.1%. Seems to me like New York can do ok without fracking. Perhaps some future governor will disagree and open the state up to fracking. But for now, we’ll be ok.

Demand Better from Albany

Albany is a brick shithouse of institutionalized corruption. The people we sent to nominally represent us in Albany are incapable of reform, unwilling to be bold and aggressive, and nothing more than a preening flock of charity cases in Brooks Brothers suits and fat per diems.

It doesn’t matter what I write or what you say – Albany isn’t going to change because it has no reason to try.

213 nobodies get paid big bucks (by WNY standards, anyway) to do nothing. Everything is directed and produced by the governor, the Senate President, and the Assembly Speaker. Unless you’re represented by Sheldon Silver or Dean Skelos, your Assemblyperson and Senator go to Albany generally to moisten seats and rubber stamp stuff.

If they’re good girls and boys, they might be given some money to send home for road projects or other public works, and they get to stand there at the ribbon-cutting and look important.

It’s all a charade.

The upstate gun huggers will quickly tell you that Andrew KKKuomo is a Nazi Mussolini Duce.  That’s foolish. Albany’s a dictatorship, it’s true, but it’s a dictatorship of the bureaucracy. The Albany nomenklatura is typically resistant to change and anything that might shake up the status quo; after all, change means someone’s likely to lose a job, and we can’t have that.

It’s been like this for decades – it was 10 years ago the Brennan Center outlined a set of reforms that would be necessary for New York State government to resemble a contemplative legislative body, yet we’re still talking about it today. Everything from unfunded mandates to three-men-in-a-room to weak campaign finance to vague financial disclosure to a lack of transparency and deliberation have been talked about, and proposed solutions largely ignored. State authorities operate like it’s the 1950s, and do so with poor oversight and budgets that are off the regular state books.

Even when people think that there might be some scant hope of even modest reform – like that undertaken first by Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, now being handled and investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, we get commissions that are abruptly shut down in favor of an on-time budget deal.

An on-time budget is more important than widespread corruption?

Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos are so afraid or opposed to investigating corruption that they make “end the Moreland Commission” a budget dealbreaker? Cuomo claimed he got accountability reforms which gave him enough cover to end the Moreland, but it’s all window dressing.

That’s before we delve into Cuomo’s own alleged meddling in the commission’s work.

How do we know Albany’s and Cuomo’s “we’re policing ourselves!” is all nonsense?

Thanks to Ass’t US Attorney Preet Bharara and the New York Times, we’re finding out more about what’s really going on.

Actually, before we get to Greg Ball and George Maziarz, let’s flash back a few years to a former member of the WNY Albany delegation who was arguably the worst in recent history – Antoine Thompson. This guy, who tried to explain why we even need a State Senate to begin with:

RIGHT. Antoine Thompson, whose staffers destroyed documents en masse when Mark Grisanti beat him in 2010. Antoine Thompson, who used campaign cash to take a vacation very serious and totally above-board trade junket to Jamaica.

Antoine wasn’t the only one.

Republican Senator Greg Ball took trips to Cancun and Acapulco, paid for with campaign dollars. It appears that Speaker Sheldon Silver is under increasing scrutiny for not disclosing all of his outside income, as required by law. Specifically, the New York Times points out three outstanding issues:

■ Powerful politicians — including the governor himself — continue to exploit a loophole in state law that allows corporations to funnel huge donations to them in smaller gifts that disguise the true sources of the money.

■ Lax personal financial disclosure laws, critics say, give corrupt legislators a way to mask political payoffs under the guise of part-time jobs. A 2011 reform presented as requiring disclosure of some clients was so narrowly drawn as to be meaningless, and another enacted this year allowed enough wiggle room that lawmakers could well continue to avoid scrutiny.

■ The line between political donations and outright bribery remains murky. Some politicians used their campaign treasuries as piggy banks for personal expenses, the commission’s investigators found, and bank records showed that lawmakers had failed to report some donations and expenditures altogether. A new, beefed-up Board of Elections enforcement unit has yet to show its strength.

The LLC loophole is what lets Carl Paladino give what amounts to unlimited campaign donations in any given cycle. While corporations can only give $5,000 in any given cycle, LLCs are treated instead as people. So, for the cost of an LLC filing fee, a donor can now repeatedly max out at $60,800 per cycle to any candidate for statewide office under each separate LLC. It also helps keep the true source of the money somewhat opaque.

So when Mr. Cuomo’s campaign wanted to nail down what became a $1 million multiyear commitment — and suggested “breaking it down into biannual installments” — the company complied by dividing each payment into permissible amounts and contributing those through some of the many opaquely named limited-liability companies it controlled, like Tribeca North End LLC.

Brazen. But it gets even worse.

Documents the [Moreland] investigators obtained provided unusual insight into what watchdog groups had long asserted: Corporations were strategically dividing up huge contributions to maximize their giving — and their influence. The use of limited-liability companies concealed the magnitude of their gifts from public view.

In one instance in 2012, the Real Estate Board of New York solicited donations for Lewis A. Fidler, a Brooklyn Democrat who at the time was running for a State Senate seat (whose previous occupant had pleaded guilty to accepting bribes).

James Whelan, a senior vice president for the board, a major lobbying force, emailed a Durst executive, Jordan Barowitz: “If you could find one of your more obscure LLCs, that would be grand.”

The Moreland Commission saw closing the LLC loophole as an easy fix, but since its disbanding, the loophole – which isn’t so much a “loophole” as it is a specific part of the law as it stands today – remains in place.

When it came time to examine the ways in which legislators were spending campaign cash for dubious, non-campaign-related purposes, retiring Senator George Maziarz (R-Newfane) “stood out”.

Investigators scrutinizing his campaign spending from 2007 through 2013 found more than $28,000 at stores like Pier 1 and Michaels; $7,500 at Shutterfly, the photo-printing site; and $7,850 for reading material, including a stop at a Borders store at Kennedy Airport.

The Moreland Commission fired off subpoenas to see what books and photos Mr. Maziarz’s campaign had bought.

Investigators also learned that Mr. Maziarz’s campaign had failed to disclose $147,000 in contributions and $325,000 in spending.

His campaign had written more than 300 checks to cash, totaling $137,000; about one-fifth of the checks were never reported to the Board of Elections.

A lawyer for Mr. Maziarz, Joseph M. LaTona, declined to comment. Mr. Maziarz, whose spending is now the subject of a federal investigation, did not seek re-election this year.

And guys like Maziarz have the stones to claim that Democrats are spendthrift? In addition to his Mexican vacations, Greg Ball,

… also traveled repeatedly to Austin, Tex., where he paid $4,000 in bar and restaurant bills — along with a $160 charge at Brooks Brothers. Those trips were, in a way, less surprising: Mr. Ball, who did not seek re-election this year, is fond of Texas, and recently announced that he would move there after leaving office.

Among the unusual outlets for spending from his campaign accounts was Tough Mudder, the organizer of extreme obstacle-course races. (Mr. Ball posted Facebook photos showing him crawling through the mud in a Tough Mudder race in 2012, and said at the time that he was trying to raise money for charity.)

Tough Mudder?!

Anyhow, you’d figure that the State Board of Elections would be on top of – and investigating – complaints of campaign finance irregularities brought to its attention, right? You’d be wrong.

The Moreland Commission saved even harsher criticism for the sleepy Board of Elections. In a preliminary report released in December 2013, the commission wrote that the board had “largely abdicated its duty to enforce our election and campaign finance laws.”

In fact, the board sometimes seemed to be avoiding investigations altogether.

Its policy dictated that anonymous complaints never be investigated, regardless of the information they contained.

Forget DAs doing it, either.

Lastly, the issue of legislators’ outside pay is coming under intense scrutiny, and if you want to know why the Moreland was shut down, look no further than Sheldon Silver and an abrupt change in the way he discloses his non-state income. Not just Silver’s firm, but the Moreland subpoenaed several law firms in hopes of verifying that these legislators were actually showing up to work, or whether their continued employment might be, e.g., an effort to skirt campaign disclosure laws.

Suspicious that some lawyer-legislators were holding no-show jobs, Moreland Commission investigators subpoenaed their law firms for building access-card data and sign-in sheets, invoices, expense reports and records detailing their clients.

Lawmakers became infuriated over the scrutiny, calling it a witch hunt into the legislative branch. Law firms went to court to block the subpoenas, as did the Senate and Assembly.

Mr. Silver’s law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, argued that it was irrelevant “what time Sheldon Silver enters and exits” its office building each day.

The litigation was unresolved when the Moreland Commission shut down.

Yet Mr. Cuomo marveled at how much the subpoenas sent to outside law firms — including Mr. Skelos’s employer, Ruskin Moscou Faltischek — had discomfited lawmakers. “I’m surprised these guys weren’t fired,” Mr. Cuomo told members of good-government groups last spring. The United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, whose office took control of the Moreland Commission’s files around that time, revived some of its investigations, including several involving lawmakers’ outside income.

Mr. Silver quickly became a focus of prosecutors’ interest.

Two people with knowledge of the matter said prosecutors have issued federal grand jury subpoenas to some of the same law firms that resisted the commission’s subpoenas, including Weitz & Luxenberg and Ruskin Moscou Faltischek. (A spokesman for the former firm declined to comment; the latter did not respond to messages.)

If you’re, say, a plaintiff’s law firm paying a legislator hundreds of thousands of dollars for what might be a no-show job, and that legislator also happens to be a huge and powerful obstacle to any attempts at tort reform, how is that not just outright bribery?

It’s time New Yorkers started demanding meaningful legislative and governmental reform, resulting in a true deliberative democracy. We do this by rejecting the notion that Albany pols are re-elected without any opposition. We do this by demanding results that go beyond a few dollars here and there for public works projects.  We do this by limiting the perverse influence that money has on state politics, and by demanding true and full transparency of where the money comes from, and where the money goes.

I won’t hold my breath.

Paladino Gets Cuomo Back

Remember last week, Cuomo trolled Paladino by using a picture of Paladino’s snowbound home to raise money for local charities?

It was, on its face, harmless – no one was attacking or criticizing Paladino, and not all that many people realized it was his house.

So, Paladino sent an email around, entitled “This Westchester House”, featuring a picture – poached from the New York Times – of Andrew Cuomo’s Mount Kisco manse:

This Westchester House - buffalopundit@gmail.com - Gmail - Google Chrome 2014-12-01 14.16.43

 

Of course, Paladino had to take a political swipe at Cuomo. It’s Carl being Carl®.

UPDATE: Don’t forget that Carl’s candidate, Astorino, only released one year’s worth of tax returns when he ran for governor this year.

Andrew Cuomo, by contrast, has released every single tax return he’s filed going back to 1992.  To answer Carl’s question re: “walk[ing] the walk”,

Mr. Cuomo reported $16,000 in charitable contributions, more than 4% of his income. All went to HELP USA, the affordable housing nonprofit he founded.

Carl Paladino never released a single year’s worth of tax returns when he ran in 2010.

Zephyr Teachout Attempts to Greet Andrew Cuomo, Shake Hand

Her tenacity is met with a wall of staffers and bodyguards, and a governor who is quite deliberately snubbing her. 

Remember, Democrats: Vote Teachout/Hochul tomorrow!

Democrats: Vote Teachout / Hochul September 9th

Tuesday September 9th is primary day, and Democrats throughout New York State have an important choice to make for Governor and Lieutenant Governor.

I’m voting for Zephyr Teachout for Governor, and Kathy Hochul for Lieutenant Governor, and you should, too. 

I am deeply disappointed in Governor Cuomo’s mishandling and abrupt cessation of the Moreland Commission’s investigation into Albany cronyism and corruption. These two topics are, to me, among the most important challenges facing the state today.  The role and power of money in politics, the unmitigated power of incumbency, the dictatorship of Albany authorities and bureaucracies, and the quid-pro-quo legalized bribery of electoral fusion all conspire to keep New York politics dysfunctional, slowly reactionary, and self-indulgent. For this reason, as well as Cuomo’s apparent lies about meddling in the state Senate, I have to register my disgust with the status quo.

These are huge, persistent problems, yet no one in or near power has any incentive to address or change them. Zephyr Teachout has made this the centerpiece of her campaign. 

I don’t do this lightly – my hesitation to denounce Cuomo is informed by how obviously good he’s been for western New York, helping to rebuild the foundation on which a new economy might emerge. We are finally making big leaps into the information age, having long-ago shed our reliance on big industry. We’re also rediscovering the value of skilled trades as an avenue for personal success and entrepreneurship. Having lost the WNY vote to Carl Paladino pretty decisively, Cuomo has paid remarkable attention to our region.  Imagine how good it would be for him to run for national office at some future date, and be able to campaign on how he turned around 50 years of Buffalo’s economic depression. I will enthusiastically vote for Andrew Cuomo in November if he is the party’s nominee. 

Furthermore, the Teachout/Wu ticket is focused on issues that matter only to the 5 boroughs of New York City – risibly so. As the old joke goes, ‘what’s the difference between ignorance and indifference? I don’t know and I don’t care’. Take a look at the five pillars of the Teachout/Wu platform, and the words “Buffalo” and “Western New York” appear exactly zero times. This ticket, as presented, has nothing to say about WNY or upstate issues (except for spotty broadband service and fracking) because they don’t know the first thing about it.  Teachout fumbled questions about keeping the Bills in WNY. Teachout/Wu presents a wide spectrum of points of view about New York State – Upper West and Lower East Side. 

Teachout’s “economy” piece deals mostly with consolidation of power, and the parts about infrastructure deal with the MTA and the effects of Hurricane Sandy. Upstate gets an abrupt shout-out about broadband, but that’s it.  The “education” piece is of general applicability to all of New York, and is replete with positions any Democrat should support – especially when it comes to the shameful way Albany has been balancing budgets on the schools’ backs for several years. On the “environment“, Teachout is the only serious candidate who opposes hydrofracking, full stop. Let Pennyslvania destroy its own aquifers – we like ours just fine, thanks. On “an open democracy“, Teachout talks about reforms that really have little to do with opening up democracy, and talks instead of reforming criminal justice, marijuana laws, and preventing abuse of the disabled. 

But the bigger picture has to do with the way the system itself is rigged – even when it benefits us as western New Yorkers.  It’s simply not being treated like the serious problem it is. That’s why the position on “corruption” is so important to me. The only thing missing – because Working Families Party – is an entry denouncing and promising an end to electoral fusion in New York State. Not incidentally, Teachout has written a scholarly work attempting to prove that embedded in our Constitution is an “anti-corruption principle” every bit as important as, say, separation of powers. 

So, because Teachout’s platform imagines that New York consists – with the exception of the Albany exclave – mainly of territories East of the Hudson and South of Poughkeepsie, I will be voting for Kathy Hochul for Lieutenant Governor. 

Hochul has the administrative and governmental chops to make up for Teachout’s utter lack of experience, and Hochul brings with her a native’s passion and knowledge about rural and western New York realities to help balance out Teachout’s geographically limited platform. Hochul was an independent-minded, conservative Democrat and balances out Teachout’s progressive-left worldview and mindset. Remember – although Teachout is running with Wu and Hochul is running with Cuomo, you can split these slates up however you’d like. Vote Cuomo/Wu, if you prefer. 

This isn’t about conspiratorial fantasies, either. I’m not trying to punish Cuomo for the NY SAFE Act or the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, except insofar as he’s doing nothing to make state bureaucrats answerable (at least indirectly) to their bosses – the people. 

For all the good he’s done for western New York, Andrew Cuomo has deceived Democrats and reformists in this state to the point of outrage. The brazen horse-trading with Senate President Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver to abruptly end the Moreland Commission on corruption was the last straw. No on-time budget is worth sacrificing the public trust yet again. It also speaks to the fundamental anti-democratic unfairness of the continued all-powerful triumverate that presides over Albany’s body politic. Cuomo’s apparent involvement in maintaining a Republican-led Senate is a betrayal made worse by lies

Albany graft and corruption help to stall and demean economic, political, and social progress in every corner of New York State. Teachout deserves support in the upcoming primary because she’s the only candidate who perceives and identifies the problem, and is assigning it the importance it deserves. But Teachout’s political novelty and ignorance about rural and upstate issues demand that the ticket be balanced with someone with experience and a WNY worldview.

Democrats should vote Teachout/Hochul on September 9th. 

Teachout, Cuomo & the Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy

When I think of Zephyr Teachout, I am specifically mindful of the fact that she’s a protest vote for the liberal wing of the statewide Democratic Party.  Most of them in and around the 5 New York City Boroughs. When I think of Zephyr Teachout, I think of this classic scene from Annie Hall: 

Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu are bright and, as far as anyone can tell, beyond reproach. Both of them are Manhattan intellectuals, and Teachout has adopted statewide political corruption as a platform plank, and Wu is known for his work on behalf of net neutrality.  Indeed, he coined the phrase. 

Andrew Cuomo has disappointed a lot of left activists. While the right assail him for the mild additive restrictions on guns via the “NY SAFE Act”, the left is sick and tired of continued Albany corruption, the constant, unchecked abuses of power, the power of incumbency, the insidious poisoning of the process by money and electoral fusion, and – above all – the comical overnight dismantling of the Moreland Commission just as soon as it started really doing its job. 

The New York Times declined to endorse Teachout due to her rookie non-credentials and her ignorance on anything going on north of Poughkeepsie and west of Nyack. It also declined to endorse Cuomo because of his fumbling of corruption. I think this is something of a cop-out. 

I have no idea whether Teachout can win the primary – I highly doubt it, but stranger things have happened.

Here in WNY we have a unique position unlike other parts of the state. There’s no Billion for Binghamton; no Assets for Albany, no Riches for Rochester or Silver for Syracuse.  Yet Buffalo and WNY have come under special Cuomo attention for two reasons: 1. he lost to Paladino here in 2010, and he wants badly to win; and 2. if he can show the world that Buffalo underwent a turnaround under his watch, he can sell that to the rest of the country in some future run. Fix Buffalo and the world is your political oyster. 

So, it’s tough to ignore the attention that the state has heaped on our fair city and region and simply dismiss Cuomo out of hand. Indeed, it’s about damn time an Albany pol tried to un-fuck Buffalo. 

But from a less selfish point of view, Albany politics are just as ugly and problematic as they’ve ever been. Efforts to change that have not only been stymied – Cuomo has actively prevented them.  Our Democratic governor, whom gun nuts liken to Karl Marx, actively supported the notion of a Republican majority in the feckless State Senate. It took Teachout to get him to actually support the idea that Democrats should win elections. 

Last night, I received a call from a Cuomo phone bank asking for my support. I bluntly told them, “ordinarily I would, but this Moreland thing has really thrown me for a loop”.  She marked me down as “undecided”, but seriously – it’s tough for me to support a governor who so casually dismisses the root of all state evils – Albany dysfunction and corruption.  This is especially true given the clean mandate that Cuomo has had to do just that. Cuomo’s inaction and outright refusal to address these issues is disappointing to me as a Democrat, but should be disappointing to all New Yorkers. 

Bluntly put, you can take your “REPEAL NY SAFE” sign and shove it, because the size of your magazine isn’t the assault on liberty you should be concerned about.

Instead, get angry about Albany’s multipartisan conspiracy with the dictatorial bureaucracies to commit managerial and legislative malpractice. This perverse system ensures that state government works for the tri-state area and no one else. Manhattan’s own Teachout and Wu aren’t going to fix that. Neither is Cuomo from Queens or Rob from Mount Pleasant (really). 

There’s nothing new here. The Brennan Center’s blueprint for reforming Albany is a decade old. No one pushes it because it’s heady and complicated and not as shiny as a gun. 

You won’t do anything about it. Your village, town, city, Assembly, and state Senate won’t do anything about it. Andrew Cuomo won’t do anything about it, and neither will Rob Astorino. Zephyr Teachout is at least talking about the right things, but there’s zero chance that she would get elected in November.

So, suck it up, New Yorkers. No matter whom you vote for in September’s primary, you’re in for another 4 years of bureaucrats running the state for their own benefit.  Unfortunately, short of a governor with some balls or a Constitutional Convention, it’s never going to change. 

Cuomo’s Betrayal

Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com

The biggest and worst problem plaguing Albany and New York State politics is corruption. Albany’s especial brand of dysfunction thrives in an opaque environment, and there is a complete and bipartisan absence of political or moral will to change it. It’s been well over a decade since people and organizations began to seriously address this culture of corruption, and NYU’s Brennan Center deserves kudos for pushing the issue with specificity

It was almost a decade ago that Suffolk County Executive Tom Suozzi barnstormed the state, seeking the Democractic nomination for governor under the banner of “Fix Albany”. We send Assemblypeople and Senators to Albany, and while we see occasional profiles in courage, like Mark Grisanti’s pivotal vote on same-sex marriage, these individuals do little legislating and a lot of grandstanding. Nothing ever changes, and there’s no one who’s all that interested in cleaning Albany up. 

Enter Andrew Cuomo, a former Attorney General who swept into Albany to get things done, but also to restore trust in state institutions. While he has infuriated the gun-hugging areas of the state outside the NYC media market, he has now successfully angered the left, most starkly by helping to maintain a Republican Senate majority. In order to secure the Working Families Party’s Wilson Pakula, Cuomo decided to actually back members of his own party to win Senate races. 

But his most promising act was to establish a “Moreland Commission” to investigate corruption in Albany – most importantly, the misuse and corruption surrounding campaign finance in the state. This dovetailed nicely with Cuomo’s now-erstwhile support for public financing of elections – a goal he all but abandoned in order to “get things done” with respect to a budget deal with the other two men in the room. (That hasn’t changed, either). 

This New York Times article is a blockbuster of investigative journalism, outlining the ways in which Governor Cuomo’s office micromanaged and hamstrung the work the Moreland Commission was doing before he unceremoniously and summarily killed it in order to “get things done” viz. budget deal with Silver and Skelos. Here is a brilliant timeline that the Times put together. Luckily, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Preet Bharara, is picking up where the defunct commission left off, investigating and prosecuting obvious illegality. 

I frankly don’t get it. If Cuomo’s aim is to ascend to the White House, he’s just dealt himself a huge blow. It won’t do much to say, “I fixed Buffalo, the unfixable” when opponents and allies alike view him with distrust because when it came time to address the state’s most pressing problem, Cuomo whiffed. 

He didn’t just whiff – he threw the game. 

I’m not going to support Astorino, and Zephyr Teachout lost me by holding a “Cuomo resign” presser with Astorino. It’s high time we stopped demanding resignation and impeachment every time a politician does something stupid or with which we disagree. It’s stupid and childish.

I want someone to say that the NY SAFE Act is a distraction from the real problems we have, like unfunded mandates, the Gap Elimination Adjustment robbing schools blind, the completely unregulated and mismanaged state Authorities, our corrupt and corrupting Wilson Pakula/electoral fusion system whereby party endorsements are exchanged for money and jobs, and the toothless, ineffective board of elections that is unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute campaign finance fraud. These are all long-standing issues, and very well known. But New York has a dictatorship of the bureaucracy, and for some reason elected officials have no will to fight that tyranny of the careerists. Even, tragically, Andrew Cuomo. 

Getting things done is great, and it’s a welcome change from the feckless Pataki Adminstration. But New York Democrats have had almost 10 years to do something meaningful about not just the symptoms, but the root causes of why the state underperforms economically – especially outside of the New York City metro. 

Four years ago, a New York Observer article wrote that mine was the “Site that Saved Andrew Cuomo”. I don’t – for a second – doubt, question, or regret my 2010 support for Cuomo over Carl Paladino. But in 2014, the continued state gutting of public school budgets, tyranny of the Authorities, continued erosion of public trust through “electoral fusion” dealmaking,  and Albany’s unwillingness to heal itself make me wish for a true alternative – not just a Westchester County apparatchik or a leftist Manhattan protest candidate. 

New York isn’t broken because of the number of bullets you can put in a magazine is now restricted. But your focus on things like that help to distract you from genuine problems that affect us all. 

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