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New Thruway boss heading today for confirmation

ALBANY -– The billionaire nominated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to head the Thruway Authority sailed through his first Senate confirmation hearing this morning.

Howard Milstein, a banking and real estate executive from Manhattan and a major donor to Cuomo’s campaign, fielded mostly softball questions and compliments from members of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Aides to Cuomo cut off two reporters trying to question Milstein after the committee meeting, saying he would be available if confirmed later today by the full Senate.

A protest against Milstein is planned for later today in Niagara Falls by religious leaders concerned about the hundreds of parcels of land Milstein and his brother have acquired over the last 12 years in the city. Milstein has not publicly said what he will do with the land, much of which sits vacant or with boarded up buildings on the lots.

Milstein’s nomination has been controversial, beginning with the Cuomo administration quietly sending his name to the Senate for consideration without making it public. Far lesser titles than the head of the state’s major road and canal systems have been featured in press releases throughout the past six months.

Also, Milstein is a major donor to Democrats and Republicans, including many of the senators who will be voting to confirm him.

And this week, New York Times columnist Michael Powell checked in with this item about Milstein.

In his transportation meeting, Milstein talked several times about wanting to use more private companies as partners with the Thruway Authority in future projects, especially larger construction and economic development endeavors.

He said private/public partnerships "will be high on the agenda" if he is confirmed.

Cuomo has said Milstein will avoid conflicts of interests that may involve the businessman’s real estate interests downstate and in Niagara Falls and the Thruway Authority.

Milstein provided no specifics to the committee about potential deals with private developers or financiers, or any details about tolls along the highway.

UPDATE: The full Senate approved Milstein's confirmation shortly after 4 pm today.

--Tom Precious

Tax cap hangs in balance as Legislature eyes end of session

ALBANY -– The Democratic Assembly leader today said there would be no cap on local property tax growth unless New York City rent control laws are strengthened in the favor of tenants.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, made clear while heading into a closed door conference with fellow lawmakers that his house will not approve just a straight extender of current rent control laws.

Asked if the cap on local property taxes has a chance if existing rent laws are simply extended as-is, Silver said, "No."

But Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, was optimistic the sides will reach just such a deal.

Rent control laws for New York City and several downstate suburbs expire Wednesday, and they have become linked at the negotiating table at the Capitol as the Legislature seeks to wrap up its 2011 session possibly as early as Friday.

"I just think at some point the Speaker is going to see the wisdom of rent control being extended and a property tax cap without a sunset," Skelos told a handful of reporters as he headed into session this afternoon.

Outside the governor’s office one floor below, a couple hundred protestors have been chanting this afternoon seeking to bolster the rent laws.

Silver has said the property tax cap -– affecting upstate and New York City suburban residents –- and the rent laws are linked because they affect the housing costs of both renters and homeowners.

A Siena College poll this morning found the tax cap the number one issue -– cited by 37 percent of respondents –- of all the major issues remaining under discussion at the Capitol.

Also in trouble is a push by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to legalize gay marriages in New York. Reports of more than a half-dozen Senate Republicans willing to give yes votes to gay marriage were dismissed by the individual Senate Republicans this afternoon as they came out of a private conference.

Later this afternoon, though, Cuomo said he believes there will be enough votes to pass the measure. Three Senate Democrats who opposed the measure in 2009 announced they were reversing course and now back gay marriage rights.

Negotiators are also discussing a tuition hike for the state university system. But a plan introduced last week by Cuomo was already in trouble in the Assembly, which is run by his fellow Democrats. Cuomo proposed a 5 percent per year increase for SUNY campuses, except an 8 percent hike for the University at Buffalo and the other three campus centers at Stony Brook, Albany and Binghamton. Cuomo would also hold harmless those students -- who represent a small minority of those enrolled at SUNY -– eligible for the full Tuition Assistance Program grant of $5,000.

"The conference doesn’t like differential tuition and they think it’s rather high and we’re not clear how all TAP students are taken care of under the [Cuomo] plan," Silver said this afternoon.

--Tom Precious

Audio: The News' Meyer on lawsuit, other City Hall topics

A civil lawsuit accusing Mayor Byron W. Brown of stopping a housing project in a pay-to-play conspiracy was among the issues News City Hall Reporter Brian Meyer discussed as a guest on WBFO-FM 88.7 today:

Download the audio and take it with you

Former RNC head pushes gay marriage effort

ALBANY -- The head of the National Republican Committee under former President George W. Bush hit the Capitol today to press fence-sitting Republicans in the Senate to back gay marriage rights before ending their 2011 session in two weeks.

“I think it is very much consistent with both Republican interests and also Republican principles,’’ Ken Mehlman, who served as RNC boss from 2005 to 2007, said of gay marriage.

There are eight Senate Republicans who have said they are undecided on whether to legalize gay marriage, which has become one of the more visible battles in the closing days of the session as proponents and opponents square off in television ads, hallway lobbying at the Capitol and a blitz before the media.

Mehlman, a New York resident, last year publicly revealed he is gay. Legalizing gay marriage is believed to be eight votes short in the 62-member, GOP-led Senate. Opponents say it will also face a far harder time passing the Assembly than the last vote two years ago because of elections that have put more Republicans into the Democratic-led chamber; Democrats in the Assembly, though, insist it will pass if put to a vote, albeit by a closer margin than in 2009.

Mehlman said Republican political interests would be served because a majority of New Yorkers say in polls that they support the legal right for gays to marry. “In terms of Republican values and principles, if you think about it, a party that stands for freedom, a party that wants to promote more families and family values and a party that tries to live by the golden rule, it seems to me, out to be supportive of this issue,’’ he told reporters at the Capitol Monday.

-- Tom Precious

Ethics Day, Part Two

ALBANY –- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders come together this afternoon to announce the deal they already announced on Friday to bolster the ethics law for state employees, including lawmakers.

The usual line-up of “good government" groups also is expected, which causes a bit of a problem for the state’s former chief watchdog of Albany’s lobbying industry.

David Grandeau, who brought a number of high-profile ethics and lobbying cases when he was the head of the state lobbying commission, wonders why the government watchdog groups are rushing out to press for the ethics deal when Cuomo and lawmakers have yet to introduce a bill with specific language describing the various provisions.

“A little scary isn’t it?" said Grandeau. Noting the recently announced deal on a property tax cap, which also has not yet seen any actual legislation, Grandeau, a lawyer, said, “We’re seeing more of it and unfortunately, it becomes government by press release." He said, though, he believes Cuomo may be using the approach to pressure lawmakers to make deals.

Of the government watchdog groups submitting comments of praise in the press release issued by Cuomo and legislative leaders shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, Grandeau said, “I’m a little leery when the good government groups are in a press release on a Friday afternoon. It tells me they’re more interested in the sound bite than they were in actually accomplishing something with it."

Grandeau saw his lobbying agency disappear when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer created the state Commission on Public Integrity, which is now being eliminated and replaced by a single agency to oversee the executive and legislative branches. He said he is a bit concerned about one provision of the new deal -– or how it was been described in the Friday press release.

The new agreement calls for eight of the new ethics agency’s board members to sign off to begin an investigation of a state lawmaker. Further, two of those eight have to be from the same major political party as the person subject to the investigation.

Grandeau called that a “fairly complicated" problem. And he noted the potential problems of a deal written by Democrats and Republicans. “God help us if we ever get someone from the Conservative Party in office because you won’t have two of those people [on the ethics board]," Grandeau said.

--Tom Precious

Faculty union criticizes UB, Stony Brook tuition plans

ALBANY -- A union representing state university professors is pushing back today against a plan by the University at Buffalo, as well as Stony Brook on Long Island, to raise tuition this fall. In the case of UB, tuition would rise up to eight percent annually as part of its UB 2020 plan, which also includes moving its medical school building to downtown Buffalo.

The two SUNY campus centers over the last couple weeks have come to the Capitol to publicly press their ideas before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders.

But the United University Professions said the plans amount to a "backdoor tax'' on students. UUP represents 35,000 faculty and professional workers at 29 state campuses.

"Tuition increases should benefit students rather than create revenues for private businesses,'' said UUP President Phillip H. Smith. The union dismissed claims by the two campuses that the additional tuition money will go to hiring more professors, making classes smaller, and to restore education cuts that have hit the SUNY system the past few years.

Smith said the tuition hikes are tax increases in disguise, and noted that Cuomo and lawmakers pledged this year not to raise taxes. "These plans would give SUNY a blank check signed by students to hike tuition to expand or construct buildings,'' Smith said in a statement today.

--Tom Precious

Corwin aide embroiled in Davis flap resigns

An Assembly staff member who figured prominently in a controversy surrounding Jane L. Corwin's failed congressional candidacy has resigned, the Clarence assemblywoman said Wednesday.

"I can confirm that Michael Mallia has resigned as my chief of staff and is no longer working for my office," she said. "This is an internal personnel matter, and as such, my policy is to have no further comment."

But Mallia's action on the campaign trail in the congressional campaign, won last week by Democrat Kathleen C. Hochul, was anything but an internal matter. He was identified in several reports as a volunteer who videotaped independent candidate Jack Davis outside a Monroe County campaign event.

Mallia allegedly shouted at Davis several times as to why he refused to participate in a debate sponsored by WGRZ-TV, causing Davis to appear to swat at the camera with a piece of paper, causing a series of loud grunts and groans from Mallia. Corwin and other GOP officials subsequently refused to discuss the matter in detail, and the event was seen as a key development in a campaign that led to Hochul's victory.

--- Robert McCarthy

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About Politics Now

Robert J. McCarthy

Robert J. McCarthy

A native of Schenectady, Robert J. McCarthy came to The Buffalo News in 1982 following a six-year stint at the Olean Times Herald. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and has been covering local, state and national politics since 1992.

Tom Precious

Tom Precious

Tom Precious joined The Buffalo News in 1997 as bureau chief at the state Capitol, where he covers everything from statewide politics and state government fiscal affairs to health care, environmental and municipal government matters. Prior to The News, he worked for news outlets in Albany and Washington, DC.

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri is an Amherst native and has covered politics and government in upstate New York since 2003. She joined The Buffalo News in 2012 and covers City Hall.

@jillterreri |

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News Washington bureau chief, has reported from the nation's capital since 1989 after joining The News as a business reporter in 1984. A graduate of Syracuse University, Zremski is a former Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. In 2007, he served as president of the National Press Club.

@JerryZremski |