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Clock ticking, time for Albany's budget term to emerge: "framework"

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – Legislative leaders late this morning emerged from nearly two hours of closed-door talks with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to – in the 58 seconds they spent with a couple dozen reporters gathered outside the governor’s office – to declare they are closing in on a final 2014 state budget deal.

Of course, they have to be, given the time on the clock, and the thousands of pages of budget bills that have to be introduced by tomorrow night if the measures are to go through the legal, three-day "aging" process for bills to be passed on Monday before Tuesday’s fiscal year start. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, did most of the talking, saying the sides are hoping for "a concluding meeting" this afternoon with Cuomo.

"We are moving toward a framework," Silver said.

"Framework" is the Albany term used to describe the situation where governors and legislative leaders come before the press to announce a budget deal. Details provided once a framework deal is announced are, typically, selective. For instance, the public will not know how much money their individual school districts across the state will be getting in state aid – a key component of how much they will pay in property taxes – until Sunday night at the earliest.

The term "framework" has become the description of choice in more recent times in Albany to characterize an agreement on broad details of the budget while staffers spend the next 24 hours working non-stop to put the final details together. "Framework" has replaced "conceptual" as the term of choice, though one year, a legislative leader described a budget deal as a "virtual" one.

Besides Cuomo and Silver, the meetings include State Senate co-leaders Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, and Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat, who heads a small breakaway group of Democrats who jointly run the State Senate.

State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the main Senate Democratic group who has been cut out of budget talks because her conference is in the minority in the chamber, did go into a meeting in the governor's suite of offices while Cuomo and the other legislative leaders were meeting. But she was not invited in to meet with them during her visit, instead holding a session with staffers.

Smiles outside, fights backstage in budget talks

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Legislative leaders were all confident and smiling again about the pace of negotiations over a 2014 state budget that needs to be approved by Monday to be considered timely before the start of the fiscal year on April 1.

But behind the scenes, the battles continued. Last week, it was Senate co-leader Dean Skelos who blew off some steam in closed-door budget talks. Today, it was Larry Schwartz, the secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sources close to the talks said an angry Schwartz said he was quitting before he exited the negotiating room on the second floor.

No such words were uttered by Schwartz, Cuomo administration officials said. They chalked up Schwartz's departure from the negotiating session as part of the normal blow-ups that mark the closing days before a final budget deal is reached. Indeed, there is a long history in Albany of negotiators, many of whom are getting by on too little sleep and too much caffeine, getting into yellling matches before the handshake deals come. One year, it took a trip by legislative leaders to a nearby Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor to make amends before a budget deal.

Anti-SAFE Act rally to feature Astorino, Trump, Paladino

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Gun rights advocates will hear from the likes of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and billionaire Donald Trump in a rally outside the state Capitol next Tuesday, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino announced Tuesday.

In an email sent to supporters and reporters, Paladino said the "stand up for your rights'' rally will call for the full repeal of the New York SAFE Act, a law passed in January last year that cracks down on the sale of assault-style weapons and, eventually, will create a tracking system for all purchases of ammunition in the state.

Others expected to speak, according to Paladino, include Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard. The three-hour rally is scheduled for the Capitol's West Park. Whether Astorino and Trump will appear together is uncertain; Trump recently said he will not run for governor this year against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the author of the SAFE Act, and a number of Republican leaders are urging county GOP leaders to rally behind Astorino.

Assembly approves debt service measure

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – The first bill of the 2014 budget was adopted by the Assembly Wednesday, a measure authorizing the state to pay $6.2 billion in the coming year on past and new borrowing to pay for everything from road to park work.

The debt service alone will cost an average of more than $300 per resident of the state. Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman Herman Farrell told colleagues during the brief floor debate that the state’s total new and existing debt -– some of which he said goes back decades -– this year will total $57.1 billion. Of that, just $3.5 billion was approved by voters in statewide referendum votes.

Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Chautauqua County Republican, took a cue from his predecessor’s annual budget speech highlighting the concerns of mounting state debt levels. He said that, while roads, bridge and other construction programs for which debt is issued may be needed, voters should have a say.

“I believe this violates the spirit if not the letter of the constitution,’’ Goodell said, echoing years of criticism about debt by former Assemblyman Bill Parment, a Jamestown-area Democrat.

But Farrell dismissed Goodell’s claims, saying court decisions have backed the Legislature’s authority to OK borrowing without direct voter approval.

An hour after the measure was overwhelmingly approved, legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo headed into closed-door budget meetings to continue talks on the 2014 budget, which is due by March 31.



Cuomo: What? Me worry?

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo dismissed the entry of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino into the governor’s race, as he did with the results of a new poll showing the governor’s job approval ratings taking a sharp decline since last fall.

“Let’s first find out who the candidate is,’’ Cuomo said today on the Capitol Pressroom, a public radio show that he regularly heads to when he wants to get his thoughts out on the airwaves.

In the Cuomo political school of how-to-ignore-your-opponent, the governor suggested Astorino might not be the Republican Party’s nominee to face him this fall. “Maybe it’s Mr. Donald Trump,’’ Cuomo said of the billionaire businessman who has been flirting with a GOP run. “Maybe it’s Mr. Carl Paladino again … or maybe it’s Mr. Astorino,’’ Cuomo said.

Cuomo also dismissed the findings of an NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll out today showing 56 percent of registered voters give him a negative job approval rating. In November, 44 percent gave him a negative rating.

Cuomo said polls go up and down and that the only major events since November in state government – his State of the State address and the release of his budget plans – contained proposals that have gotten “overwhelming support.’’

Cuomo defended his handling of the state’s economy, saying the unemployment rate is better today than at any point since 2008. “Is the economic great? No. But is the state doing better? Yes,’’ Cuomo said.

Cuomo was not asked, nor did he criticize, the portion of the same poll showing the governor with a 40 point edge over Astorino, who announced just Wednesday he is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Local officials raise concerns over Cuomo property tax plan

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -– In a further sign of trouble for one of his signature budget proposals, more than than 100 local officials across the state have signed onto a letter criticizing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest property tax plan.

Lawmakers and groups representing various levels of local governments -– schools, counties and others -- have already raised concerns in recent days and weeks that Cuomo’s property tax freeze plan ignores the realities of rising costs of local government services, many of which are mandated by the state but not paid for by Albany.

The new letter from local elected officials -– from towns, villages and cities across the state -– was organized by a coalition of groups opposing Cuomo’s plan, including the Working Families Party.

The local officials, in a “Dear Albany’’ letter, said governments across New York have been cutting police, fire and sanitation services in recent years, especially since Albany has reduced the level of state aid it provides localities over the years and the enactment of a 2 percent property tax cap several years ago that has slowed revenues at a time when mandated costs keep rising.

The local officials said the governor’s proposal “will only exacerbate the problems we face on a daily basis. We do not believe the $1 billion property tax freeze as proposed in the executive budget is practical,’’ they wrote.

The governor’s plan will provide modest savings in the form of a rebate check to individual homeowners in upstate as compared to downstate residents, where property taxes are among the nation’s highest. Upstate property taxes, when measured against income levels, have some of the highest levels in the country.

In the second year of the Cuomo plan, local taxpayers will only get a property tax break from the state if their local taxing jurisdiction -– school district, county, town –- stays within the limits of the state’s annual property tax cap and submits a plan to share services, consolidate or merge with other nearby localities.

Localities, though, say that many have already enacted shared service agreements and other consolidation efforts in recent years, and that those plans will not be grandfathered into the Cuomo property tax freeze equation. The local officials, in their letter, said that the main state revenue-sharing program for local governments across New York is down 75 percent since 1980 when adjusted for inflation.

“We urge you to reject forced property tax freezes and forced consolidation and mergers,’’ the local officials wrote.

The letter was signed by county clerks, county legislators, city council members, town supervisors, library board members, highway superintendents, city treasurers, a county comptroller and mayors, including Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who Cuomo handpicked several years ago to be co-chair of the state Democratic Party. They include local officials from Western and Central New York, the Southern Tier, Long Island and the Hudson Valley.

West Seneca Supervisor Sheila Meegan, a Democrat, said her town and others across the state are already struggling to live under the state’s tax cap while having to provide state-mandated services.

“For our municipality, we’re actually looking for greater communication with the governor and (relief) from unfunded mandates. That’s where we’re getting killed,’’ Meegan said in an interview this morning. She criticized a system in which Albany “is dictating to us’’ how to run localities without providing the payments for services the state requires.

“We would hope some of these mandates they forced on municipalities would get paid by the state,’’ she said.

UPDATE: Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor, pushed back against the criticism by local officials. "It's clear that some local officials don't want to be held accountable by taxpayers for staying within the cap and taking action to share services, reduce costs and lower property taxes. Under the governor's plan, local governments and schools will be responsible for taking the right steps to get their fiscal houses in order, much like the state has already done so,'' Schwartz said in a written statement this afternoon.

Skelos: Differences remain but on-time budget will happen

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – The Legislature’s top Republican said his colleagues are still committed to blocking efforts to give college tuition aid to children of illegal immigrants and to raise taxes on wealthy people in New York City to help pay for a pre-kindergarten program.

Still, said Sen. Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican who is co-leader of the Senate, the differences should not result in a late budget. “I don’t think it’s anything insurmountable that we can’t have an early budget again," Skelos said Wednesday.

Skelos said Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not yet agreed to take out from his budget plan a measure to permit taxpayer funding of political campaigns in New York. “That’s still being discussed," Skelos said, reiterating the opposition to the plan by Senate Republicans.

Skelos, in an interview with three reporters in his Capitol office suite, also said he sees the budget containing new money to expand pre-K programs in school districts “as long as it’s a reasonable amount." He did not elaborate.

Skelos said he also sees the debate over the state’s Common Core educational program a measure being debated on the Assembly floor most of the afternoon, not being resolved in the budget, but being dealt with later in the session.

Skelos said the Senate’s budget will include differences from plans proposed by Cuomo; he said, for instance, Senate Republicans want a tax cut for manufacturers to be applied statewide and not just upstate as Cuomo proposed.

Astorino seeks GOP nomination to take on Cuomo

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – Putting aside the polling and money advantages and the power of incumbency held by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino made it official this morning with an announcement that he is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Cuomo this fall.

Astorino jumped into the race to take on the heavily bankrolled Cuomo via a video message his campaign released this morning.

Astorino, who has won two county-wide elections in Westchester where registered Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans, has vowed to make the state’s economy a priority of his run against Cuomo. [Still in the mix for the Republicans, despite a considerable dose of skepticism by many GOP leaders, is billionaire Donald Trump, who for several months has been weighing a run against Cuomo.]

“I’m announcing my candidacy for governor of New York state because I’m tired of listening to the fairy tale that everything is just great when everything is just the opposite,’’ Astorino said in his six-minute video. Spinning off a line from Ronald Reagan, Astorino said he will ask New Yorkers to consider a question in choosing between him and Cuomo. “I have a simple question for New Yorkers: are we winning or are we losing today?’’

Astorino blasted Cuomo for overseeing what he said is the highest-taxed state with the worst business climate and for raising taxes and imposing more mandates while not making a decision on natural gas fracking and “demonizing gun owners.’’

He sought to portray Cuomo as out of touch by proposing a plan to give free college education to prison inmates at a time when families cannot afford to send their children to college. And he lashed out at what he termed “Cuomo’s common core,’’ the Board of Regents program involving standardized testing and teacher evaluations.

“After four years, it’s clear he’s not leading at all,’’ said Astorino, wearing no jacket but a white dress shirt and blue tie.



Trump adviser on looming Astorino announcement: Ho hum

 By Tom Precious
ALBANY -- While a growing number of Republicans appear to be losing faith that developer Donald Trump has interest in running for governor, a top adviser to the billionaire businessman Tuesday did not close the door -- even as Westchester County's Rob Astorino is set to jump into the governor's race tomorrow.

Trump had insisted for weeks that the only way he'd run governor is if GOP leaders give him a clear path, with no primary, for the nomination.
Asked if Trump will be ending his exploratory bid now that Astorino is expected to announce his gubernatorial bid Wednesday, Michael Cohen, executive vice president at the Trump Organization, said: "Rob Astorino's announcement will do little to curb the vast movement by the majority of GOP leaders who all are committed to a Donald Trump candidacy. Their belief is that only Donald Trump has the ability to win the gubernatorial race and defeat Cuomo."

Astorino making it official Wednesday

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – Rob Astorino is expected to make it official Wednesday that he is jumping into the race to try to oust Gov. Andrew Cuomo from the governor’s mansion.

The Republican Westchester County Executive, who has won two terms in a county where Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans, said today on his Twitter account that he is “announcing decision on whether to run for governor of NY in video news release Wednesday.’’

Astorino for months has been traveling the state and meeting with GOP leaders to pump up his potential candidacy.

Once he’s in, a couple of key questions remain. First, does billionaire Donald Trump, who has been flirting with a possible GOP run himself, officially bow out of contention? Trump has said he would run only if Republicans give him a clear field without any primary challengers, a request dismissed by some party leaders.

Secondly, does Carl Paladino start a real move to try to run for governor just on the Conservative Party line? He has threatened to disrupt the GOP if it does not nominate what he considers a true conservative with a chance against Cuomo. Paladino, a Buffalo businessman who lost badly to Cuomo four years ago, has praised Astorino, but criticized him for not denouncing what Paladino considers left-leaning leadership by Republicans in the state Legislature.


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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 |