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Audio from Albany: State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos

As part of a regular weekly feature on the Politics Now blog, Tom Precious of The News' Albany Bureau posts an audio interview with a newsmaker from the Capitol.


ALBANY -- The Legislature's top Republican shot down the prospects of a pay hike for state lawmakers, including sneaking one in after this fall's elections for the Senate and Assembly.

"It's not the time to do that. The answer's no,'' Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told The News when asked if a pay raise would be agreed to by Senate Republicans after the November elections. ... Read more

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Kearns puts it in writing: I really, really am a Democrat

Michael Kearns celebrates his victory in the March 20 special election. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

ALBANY –- There is no secret stamp on it. No drop of blood next to his signature. But a letter to the Legislature’s top Democrat from Michael Kearns, Western New York’s newest member of the Assembly, does make it clear he is a true Democratic believer.

Kearns, a Democrat, ran on the Republican line in his victory last week in a special election against Democrat Christopher Fahey. While he said he wanted to join with the Assembly Democrats in Albany, Kearns also made his opposition to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver quite loud in his campaign -– a move that did not sit well with rank-and-file Assembly members from around the state.

Kearns and Silver met last week and happy talk emerged from both sides.

But to join the Democratic conference –- and, therefore, to be a part of the power structure in the Assembly -– Kearns was told he needed to write an unusual letter stating how he will adhere to the Democratic principles of the Assembly conference. Officials stressed it was not a loyalty letter, but was being asked of Kearns for legal reasons because he ran as a Republican.

In his March 26 letter to Silver, Kearns noted, "it has always been and will continue to be my desire to become a member of the Assembly Democratic conference." He then noted his long Democratic Party ties.

Since his meeting with Silver, Kearns has been accepted into the Democratic conference, and has sat through several of the closed-door sessions as lawmakers and staff discussed the emerging state budget.

Kearns also has been given an office in the Legislative Office Building –- Room 431, with a modest view looking south on the other side of the Capitol –- and has been given the South Buffalo district office of Mark Schroeder, who left the Assembly to become city comptroller. Kearns has also given Silver a wish list of 11 committees on which he’d like to serve, most of which he knows he will not, given his freshman status, be given.

--Tom Precious

Assembly leader declares fiscal victory

ALBANY -- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said this evening that the new budget deal is a better budget than what was proposed by the governor in January because of the range of programs getting funding restorations.

“It’s a better budget because we refocused priorities toward children, toward families and toward some middle-class families’ needs,’’ Silver said in an interview at the Capitol

The Democratic leader cited an increase in money going to the formula under which schools are funded, including moving $200 million Gov. Andrew Cuomo wanted to use as performance incentives for schools. Steering the $200 million through the formula will end up benefitting low-income districts like Buffalo.

The Assembly Democrats also got an increase in the basic, monthly public assistance grant, as well as a $150 increase per full-time equivalent student for the state’s community colleges.

“Take a look at the Assembly one-house budget. We got everything we wanted,’’ Silver said.

Asked how this was an easier budget than past years, Silver said, “When there’s less money it’s always an easier budget.’’ He noted overall funding decisions made last year for education and Medicaid, as well as the tax package approved in December, also helped close this year’s budget down more easily than some of the past fiscal battles he has had with the five governors who have held office since he became the Assembly leader in 1994.

--Tom Precious

Jerry Zremski on the Supreme Court health care arguments


Warthling up for Water Authority reappointment

Erie County legislators are poised to reappoint Francis G. Warthling to a third term on the Erie Water Authority's Board of Commissioners.

Warthling, who serves as chairman of the Water Authority, appeared before the Legislature's Energy and Environment Committee last week. His reappointment to a three-year term is expected to be approved by the full Legislature on Thursday after Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant submitted his name for the position.

Warthling, 45, is chairman of the Lackawanna Democratic Committee. He is owner of Warthling Properties and is vice president of Diamond Cutters of Western New York. His family owns Curly's Grill & Banquet Center in Lackawanna.

Each commissioner on the three-member Water Aurthority board earns $22,500 a year.

-- Denise Jewell Gee

Analyzing the latest votes in Congress

WASHINGTON -- The Obama health care law returned to the floor of the House last week, as Republicans passed legislation designed in part to give them a chance to hack away at Democrats for supporting every line of the original health bill -- even if they don't.

Proof of all that came Friday, a day after Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, bucked her party leadership and voted for a bill that sets restrictions on health care liability lawsuits and that kills the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board. Created as part of the original health reform bill, that board will have great power to limit how much Medicare pays for services rendered.

Critics say that the Medicare board will end up rationing health care, which is why the National Republican Congressional Committee started running automated calls on Friday, criticizing lawmakers who voted to keep the payment board alive.

But the GOP campaign committee also ran robo-calls against Hochul, saying: "Hochul's plan even empowers unelected bureaucrats to make decisions that could deny access and raise the cost of care."

Oops. Hochul voted to put those unelected bureaucrats out of business.

NRCC spokesman Nathaniel Sillin insisted the automated calls were "not inaccurate at all," given that Hochul supports much of the Obama health law.

The NRCC also ran similar robo-calls against Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport -- both of whom voted against the GOP bill on medical lawsuits and the Medicare board.

The vote on that bill -- which passed -- highlighted action in the House last week.

Continue reading "Analyzing the latest votes in Congress" »

Budget negotiators fail to meet self-imposed midnight deadline

ALBANY -- With the clock ticking, and spring vacation starting for many lawmakers this weekend, negotiators did not get all the remaining budget bills onto lawmakers' desks by midnight last night in order to age them for three days to get the final budget in place on Thursday.

Two pieces of legislation -- a 72-page revenue bill and the 92-page health bill -- did hit the legislature's bill drafting system just a short while ago. The health bill is S6256D and A9056D; the revenue bill is S6259D and A9059D.

Both of those bills are the Article VII "language'' bills needed to implement the spending. Missing are the actual appropriation bills, as well as the big -- and always contentious -- education spending and language bills. Still ongoing are fights over distribution of state aid to 700 school districts and whether to keep teacher evaluation report cards secret from the public.

All this means, for clock watchers, that the 2012 budget will not be in place until Friday. That is unless Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives lawmakers a message of necessity to avoid the three-day aging process mandated by the constitution.

UPDATE: Still awaiting introduction of final budget bills on state operations, aid to localities, capital spending, education and the spending plans for the Legislature and Judiciary.

UPDATE: Appears major budget bills have now been introduced. No school aid numbers yet for individual districts. Since some things never change in Albany, that will be last minute as a way, in large part, to keep rank-and-file lawmakers from grumbling and insisting on changes to districts back home.

-- Tom Precious

DiNapoli says Cuomo plan reduces transparency

ALBANY -- State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli says a deal today at the Capitol limiting his ability to conduct certain pre-audits of state contracts "undermines'' a needed check on state spending.

The relaxed oversight, sought by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, will apply to potentially billions of dollars worth of state and local government contracts in New York and affects centralized procurement deals overseen by the state Office of General Services, the comptroller said.

"It is a mistake to erode this independent oversight,'' DiNapoli said of the deal by lawmakers and Cuomo. "Eliminating review of contracts potentially worth over billions of dollars undermines the accountability and transparency New York taxpayers deserve. Checks and balances are essential to fiscal responsibility.''

-- Tom Precious

Silver: A few thorny budget issues still remain

ALBANY –- As budget negotiators are being told to start putting down their pencils this afternoon, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said there are still outstanding issues to be resolved over education and health care spending.

Ironic that those two areas would still be open since officials for months have said this year’s budget process would go much easier because an overall spending level for those two areas of the budget were already resolved in last year’s budget. Medicaid and aid to public schools is set to rise 4 percent apiece this year, all sides agree.

But, details are another matter. In an interview, Silver said the sides have not yet settled a rather key question over aid to 700 school districts. “How it gets distributed,’’ Silver said matter-of-factly, and without elaborating.

The Democratic leader said a “couple issues’’ still remain in the health care portions of the budget. One is over creation of a health exchange program in New York to abide by new health insurance mandates; the exchanges would be in charge of administering the federal program and getting insurance into the hands of uninsured New Yorkers.

But the state budget talks here come as President Obama’s health insurance program was being tested in oral arguments on Monday in Washington before the U.S. Supreme Court. Many Republicans are trying to overturn the law, and most states have yet to adopt their own health exchange programs.

“Health exchange is clearly an issue. We want to get federal money … So far, the Senate is resisting that,’’ Silver said. Asked if it was a political issue for the GOP, Silver said, “I have no idea why they’re doing it. You’ll have to ask them.’’

Silver said the slowly emerging 2012 budget, after having gone through legislative changes, will better take into account “the needs of the people’’ in a number of areas. The final budget, which lawmakers hope to adopt by Thursday night, will eventually drive more money than Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed to poorer school districts, as well as to a number of social programs, Silver said.

 -- Tom Precious

Albany starts moving on state budget

ALBANY –- It’s official. The budget bill passage --  well, introduction process -- has begun. Three budget bills have been delivered to all lawmakers’ desk in the Senate and Assembly to begin the three-day “aging’’ process with hopes of a final, enacted budget by Thursday or so.

The Assembly versions of the three bills introduced before midnight last night are: A9055-D, A9058-D and A9060-C.

The first bill covers the area of the budget involving public protection and general government. The second covers transportation, economic development and environmental conservation. And the third permits some state agency mergers to go ahead, including creating a single entity to regulate all forms of gambling in the state.

Still to come are the specifics for K-12 education spending, higher education, public assistance, mental hygiene and the revenue bill.

The three-day aging process is a bit unusual for the budget, even though it is mandated by the constitution. But the governor and Legislature were stung after last week’s rather blatant, middle-of-the-night deals over several big policy bills, including the pension change measure.

So, welcome transparency. We’ll see how long it lasts. (One clue to look for this week: do they give three days to age the school “runs’’ that determine the precise state aid breakdowns for all 700 school districts? That’s the document lawmakers typically are given just minutes before they pass the education funding bill).

UPDATE: If you prefer to look at the same bills, but the Senate versions, here you go: S6255D, S6258D, and S6260C.

-- Tom Precious

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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 |