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Andrew Cuomo’s Popularity Wave

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, April 18th, 2011

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in politics just by doing what you said you were going to do. Paterson, Spitzer, Pataki — all of their poll numbers took a huge hit during budget seasons. Gov. Andrew Cuomo corralled the state legislature into passing the budget on time, and his poll numbers have never been better.

The media has turned gung-ho about Cuomo, too. Last week the Daily News swooned over his deal with the police union: “Hail to Cuomo for demonstrating that productive, taxpayer-friendly labor negotiations really are possible in Albany,” the paper wrote. Back in October of 2010, Chris Smith wrote cluck-cluckingly in New York magazine about Cuomo’s play-it-safe campaign: “Cuomo is missing out on the opportunity to address the pervasive anxiety in New York’s electorate and make a principled emotional connection with the politically disaffected.” In March of 2011, he wrote that “The budget story Cuomo tells…is skillfully crafted, entertainingly performed, and irresistibly compelling” and ceded to Cuomo “a brilliantly played first 100 days in office.” And last week, State Room’s editor pointed out that this reporter was falling into the same trap — that maybe before she said Cuomo had made a smart move by hiring Jason Helgerson, it might be prudent to point out that “Cuomo is being called smart/savvy a lot lately.”

There’s an underbelly to all this praise, though, at least as far as the media is concerned. At the beginning of Cuomo’s administration, much was made of his tight-lipped press shop, and it’s still possible, particularly on big stories that don’t jive with the story Cuomo is writing for himself, to find sentences indicating that calls to Albany got little response. Even Matt Bai, writing in The New York Times Magazine about Cuomo’s father, was rebuffed: “In the weeks after I visited Mario,” Bai wrote, “I tried repeatedly to reach the current governor to talk about his father. He declined to return the call.”

But Andrew Cuomo is, after all, a politician. He has to screw up sometime, right? And when he does, the sting of all those unreturned calls and ignored emails could push the press to be less than kind. The fall of popular politicians is just as good a story arc as their rise.

But what if Cuomo endures? There have been wildly popular governors in this country before — just not in recent New York State history. The best way for Cuomo to keep on riding his wave of popularity is to continue making promises he can actually keep. If he’s lucky, the economy’s recovery will start speeding up, and he can take credit for it.

The most important thing, though, is that he knows when to quit. With politicians, popularity never lasts forever. Just ask Mike Bloomberg. His poll numbers were just as good as Cuomo’s, until this last term. In politics, popularity never lasts forever.

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The New York Education of Jason Helgerson

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, April 11th, 2011

Medicaid Director Jason Helgerson

Getting the budget passed on time has earned Andrew Cuomo a round of hosannas for his shrewd political maneuvering. But one of the smartest moves that Cuomo has made since becoming governor may have been hiring Jason Helgerson as his Medicaid director — if,  for no other reason, than to hand over responsibility for the details of health care reform. Throughout the budget process, Cuomo got away with promising that the Medicaid Redesign Team, headed by Helgerson, was doing the most important work of anyone in the state — figuring out how to cut almost $3 billion from the Medicaid budget. This promise sounded impressive. It gave Cuomo an excuse to avoid talking about the details of the cuts or the technicalities of Medicaid. It also kept him from needing to sully otherwise stirring speeches with words like “utilization.”

Helgerson, on the other hand, talks about “utilization” a lot. He also tends to use words like “eligibility.” He learned, too, in the past few months that “care management” stings less than “managed care.”

Before Cuomo hired him, Helgerson was working on Medicaid in Wisconsin, his home state, and his first few months in New York have been intense. “I’m a survivor of the New York State budget,” he said last week, at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs. He had not been aware, he said, that meetings might be scheduled at 4 a.m., but in the past months, he had attended more than one at that hour. With the budget over, “my life is going to be a little bit more sane,” he said.

Cutting the Medicaid budget, however, marked only the first step in reining in the largest Medicaid system in the country in total dollars, with the second highest per enrollee spending rates. Helgerson now has to keep tabs on costs, as they roll in over the year, and find places to cut if spending threatens to exceed the limits set in March’s budget.

The Medicaid Redesign Team purported to provide (and will continue to offer) a forum in which health care stakeholders could sit around a table together and decide on the best ways to cut Medicaid. But although the team was quick to pass the package of recommendations put before it back in February, not everyone agrees on how to improve the system.

“I guess the number one worry is that we not go back on coverage and not go back on long-term care,” said Robert Doar, New York City’s commissioner for human resources administration, at the CNYCA event. Doar’s department oversees public health programs in the city, and unlike Helgerson, he has been working in New York politics for awhile: he was the deputy commissioner and then the commission of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance at the state level. He has had his current job since 2007.

At the beginning of his remarks, Doar welcomed Helgerson to the state and promised, “New York is not as tough a place as they say. We want you to succeed.” Doar and Helgerson were two of five panelists that evening, and Doar was the audience favorite, the one to elicit happy laughter and murmurs of agreements. And although he was careful to say that the city wanted to work with the state to make Medicaid succeed, Doar quietly tried to insert questions and uncertainties into the picture that Helgerson had laid out of the Medicaid Redesign Team’s report and the advances the budget had made.

Helgerson had said, for instance, that the redesign team recommendations and the budget were moving the state towards more care management. He chose that term over “managed care” to indicate that he meant that the government was trying to ensure more rational, more streamlined, and therefore better health care, not as in “managed care,” trying to take away patients’ power to make their own health care choices.

While Helgerson took pains to distinguish those two ideas, Doar tried to conflate them.

“Managed care or care management — that sounds good,” he said. “I want to make sure it is good.”

“Managed care plans can cost more than personal cost plans,” he said.

Although Doar had welcomed Helgerson, he was also defending his territory. New York City, through state and federal health care reforms, is already losing control over one of the key aspects of Medicaid–enrollment decisions. And the city is also defending in court its decisions to enroll some Medicaid patients in home care programs.

“We are a leader in the much maligned community-based long-term care,” Doar noted, and when asked about the lawsuit, he argued that, while the city’s Medicaid program might not be perfect, the U.S. Attorney’s office was using an unnecessarily strong tool to crack down on it.

But New York City is not the biggest issue that Helgerson faces going forward. One issue that the budget this year did not address was “spousal refusal,” which allows a sick person’s partner to remove his or her income from calculations of the funds available to pay for health care. It’s an option that’s available in very few states and used most readily in New York and Florida. It also allows more middle class couples, who do have substantial resources available, to preserve their funds and tap into a program designed to help the least wealthy.

“I had one woman tell me that spousal refusal was middle class people’s portion of Medicaid,” said Helgerson, who still seemed a bit floored by the audacity of that statement.

The good news for Andrew Cuomo is that, with the budget done, he doesn’t have to talk about fixing health care anymore. That’s Helgerson’s job, and he still has a lot to do.

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Black Out, Walcott In: Deputy Mayor Is Named New Education Chancellor

By Sarah Laskow
Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Dennis Walcott

After Mayor Bloomberg introduced Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott as the city’s new education chancellor this morning, Walcott announced one of his short-term goals in his new job: making waffles with a bunch of sweet-voiced school kids.

Walcott follows Cathie Black as chancellor, and the image he presented at this morning’s press conference stood in contrast to the corporate superpower of Black, who resigned just months after she had joined the Bloomberg administration. It’s hard to imagine Black pouring batter into a hot, buttery waffle iron. She always seemed more comfortable with spreadsheets and conference tables than children.

And that was the root of her problem. Mayor Bloomberg brought her in at the end of 2010 in order to, he said, to help lead the school system through its thorny financial problems. Those problems haven’t disappeared. The budget that came out of Albany last week cut millions of dollars of school aid to New York City, and both teacher lay-offs and program cut-backs are looming. Perhaps Black’s financial acumen could have made those cuts less painful than they might be. Perhaps she could have pushed the school system’s operations into a more fiscally responsible mode. But she was never able to show that she would do that work with real empathy to parents or real concern about their kids.

Mayor Bloomberg said that he and Black had “mutually agreed” on her resignation. “[Black] has worked tirelessly to learn all the ins and outs of the system,” the mayor said. “She loves New York and wants to do what’s right for the families and students that she serves.”

“I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out as either of us had expected,” he said.

Last week, an NY1-Marist poll put Black’s approval rate at a dismal 17%, and her unpopularity was starting to infect opinions about Mayor Bloomberg’s entire education push. In 2009, the poll reported, 53% of New Yorkers approved of Mayor Bloomberg’s work on public schools. In 2011, just 27% felt the same way.

While Black came from Mayor Bloomberg’s social circle, a cadre of elite New Yorkers, Walcott comes from New York’s political world. Before joining the Bloomberg administration in 2002, at its very beginning, Walcott headed the New York Urban League and served on the Board of Education from 1993-1994. His career has focused on social services and New York communities, and in 2001, The New York Times pointed to his “talent for staying calm” and noted “his equanimity has hastened his ascent in a city of short tempers.”

File this latest promotion under that rubric. After Black’s confirmation, her retort to a heckling parent at a community meeting grew into one of the biggest stories about her tenure. She and Bloomberg exemplify the prickly sort of striver who accomplish their goals despite others might think about them because they believe they’re right. But when it comes to education, New Yorkers might turn out to prefer a chancellor who’s a little sweeter, who they can imagine feeding waffles to their kids.

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Legislature Passes Budget Using Age-old Secret Strategy: Ignore Difficult Decisions

By Sarah Laskow
Friday, April 1st, 2011

The New York legislature passed the budget yesterday! And it was on time! Which means New York politics is solved forever! Right?

If only it were so. Despite the vague euphoria sweeping over the capitol and its press on Thursday (a side effect, perhaps, of staying up too late the night before to meet the April 1st budget deadline), the relief afforded by passing the budget will be brief. Meeting the deadline required the legislature and the governor to jettison more than few heavy problems that were weighing down the process. And so politics will continue. Here’s what to expect next.

HEALTH CARE
Most notable among the knotty policy problems that the budget did not try to untangle was cuts to health care. First the governor shifted the burden of figuring out what sort of cuts to make to his Medicaid Redesign Team, a group of health care stakeholders that met three times in total and green-lighted a group of proposals without really discussing them, according to some accounts.

The various cuts in the proposals added up to $2.3 billion in savings, but one of the most powerful tools that it gave the executive branch was the cap on the Department of Health’s Medicaid state expenditures. This is, according to a budget factsheet from the governor’s office,  “an overall spending cap, enabling the Commissioner of Health to make additional savings actions during the year, if necessary.” This is as close as you get to a carte blanche in politics: if and when those saving actions become necessary, the focus of the press and the people will be elsewhere.

TEACHERS
Schools did badly in the budget this year, even with the extra $230 million thrown in at the end. The state budget shaved off 3.5% of its funding to schools, but with those cuts coming after supplemental funding from Washington dried up, schools are facing lay offs and cuts to programs. In its budget fact-sheet, the governor’s office reminded New Yorkers that their schools “will continue to have among the highest spending per pupil in the nation,” but that’s no comfort to schools with less money or teachers who could lose their jobs.

Accordingly, groups like NYSUT, the state teachers’ union, are still looking for opportunities to dampen the hurt a little. “We have seen supplemental budgets where the legislature comes back and appropriates new money for programs,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT. “It’s a little early in the game right now, but one of the strategies will be to pursue a supplemental budget to provide further restorations for schools.”

The other big question for teachers going forward is, if schools have to let teachers go, how much leeway will administrators have in making those decisions? Mayor Bloomberg still wants to get past the “last in, first out” policies that keep veteran (and therefore more expensive) teachers over their younger (cheaper) colleagues.

MANDATE RELIEF
After the budget, mandate relief looms as the next great fiscal hill the legislature will have to overcome. The problem, essentially, is that over the years, the state government has told local governments that they have the responsibility to provide all sorts of services to their citizens and that they have to pay for those services themselves. Usually, local governments do this by increasing property taxes, one of their only money-raising gimmicks.

Rolling back the number of expensive services local governments have to provide is “critically necessary for all lower levels of governance,” Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said last night. His minority counterpart, John Sampson, also cited that as an upcoming priority.

The Senate has already passed a property tax cap, which is the flip side of mandate relief. (If local officials can’t find the money to pay for services, mandates don’t matter much, anyway.) But Democrats, who control the Assembly, want to pair the property tax cap with a solution to the expiring rent regulation law. For a brief minute, Gov. Cuomo was saying this duo could be folded into the budget, but then the issue was dropped.

REDISTRICTING AND ETHICS REFORM
Gov. Cuomo made ethics reform one of his primary campaign talking points but also has made a point of saying he’s not particularly concerned about when it happens. It certainly wasn’t higher on his priority list than passing an on-time budget: He even earned a wrist-slap from New York Post columnist Fred Dicker, usually a pretty reliable Cuomo fan, when he passed up on converting an opportune ethics scandal into a set of strong talking points on ethics.

Now that the budget is finished, though, ethics reform might find some air to breathe. But good government groups are more focused for the moment on trying to force the legislature into doing the thing politicians are least wont to do: acting against their own electoral interests.

The 2012 election may be a full 19 months away, but that’s a heartbeat in political time, especially when the possibility that redistricting could snatch your district out from under your feet.

This week, Skelos, who once promised he’d support some version of an independent redistricting process, said on NY1 he would not take up independent redistricting. The budget also includes funds for a redistricting process run exclusively by the legislature.

New York Uprising, the organization founded by former Mayor Ed Koch, who has been arguing for an independent redistricting process, is trumpeting on its Web site that “time is running out” on redistricting reform.

“It’s basically a challenge of momentum,” New York Uprising’s Adam Riff emailed. “There are already rules in place governing apportionment, and once they’re set in motion, it gets harder and harder to shift course to an independent commission, which is why it is the goal of some “Enemies of Reform” to simply run out the clock.  We’re not there yet, but that’s why it’s more urgent than ethics and budget reforms.”

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Should Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant Be Shut Down?

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, March 28th, 2011

The Indian Point Nuclear Energy Center

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long opposed the nuclear power plant at Indian Point and has been speaking since the Japanese nuclear crisis about the possibility of closing it for good. For New Yorkers who agree that the nuclear power plant at Indian Point should cease operations, there is a simple way to further that goal: stop buying the plant’s electricity.

Most residents of New York City are Con Edison customers, and Con Edison depends on Indian Point for power. Con Edison, though, is primarily a transmission company. It buys the electricity and brings it to consumers. Those who depend on Con Edison to keep their lights on can choose to accept the energy mix (and the price) that the company offers. But they also have the option of buying their power elsewhere and having Con Edison deliver it.

Which means that it’s possible for an individual to cut ties with Indian Point now. NYPIRG has put together a list of alternative energy options: in the New York City area, consumers can choose to buy energy generated from wind and hydropower. These options are a bit more pricey: They cost an additional one or two cents per kilowatt-hour, and plans that contain 100% wind power are more expensive than those that draw from a mix of renewable sources. Over the course of a year, these additional costs total about $50 to $100 extra dollars for the average customer.

As a state, New York has been cementing its commitment to these alternative energy resources: The state’s current goal is to have 30% of electricity comes from renewable sources by 2015. According to the latest figures available from the New York ISO, which helps run and monitor the state’s electricity system, 22% of all electricity generated in the state comes from renewable resources. The vast majority of that (19% of all generation) comes from hydropower.

 
Right now, the majority of Indian Point’s spent fuel is stored in the same sort of cooling tanks that proved a problem at Fukushima. If the plant was decommissioned, the fuel would likely be stored differently, in dry casks.
 

But while the state — and the city — depend heavily on nuclear power for electricity, Con Edison is decreasing the amount of power it is contracted to buy from Indian Point over the next few years, from 1000 megawatts in 2009, to 850 MW in 2010, to 350 MW this year and next. The company still says, however, that approximately 30% of the power it delivers to New York and Westchester County comes from the plant. And in New York State as a whole, 32% of electricity generated relies on nuclear power, according to NYISO. (There are four other reactors in the state, the majority of them clustered outside of Oswego, NY, near Lake Ontario.)

Shutting down Indian Point would mean finding a different source for that portion of the electricity New Yorkers use. The NYISO, in a report published near the close of 2010, wrote that if Indian Point were to close, it would create reliability problems for the New York area electricity grid — in other words, the likelihood of blackouts and brownouts occurring would exceed acceptable limits.

Cuomo’s office reiterated last week that the governor believes the state will be able to find enough new sources to make up the gap.

But where will it come from? Although the thought of a nuclear meltdown 20 miles from New York City can be unnerving, nuclear does have certain advantages over other fuel sources for electricity generation. New York City’s fuel mix produces emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide significantly lower than the national average. Carbon dioxide emissions, for instance, are 54% of the national average emissions rate. The better carbon emissions rates are one of the reasons that national leaders, including President Obama, have been staunch nuclear supporters.

In New York, the alternatives to nuclear come with their own baggage. Wind power only accounts for a tiny slice of the state’s electricity, and new wind projects cannot account for the amount of electricity Indian Point generates. And wind power doesn’t necessarily account for most new growth in this sector, either. “Currently most of the larger generators coming online are high efficiency combined cycle natural gas generators,” Ken Klapp, a spokesman for NYISO, told State Room. Closing Indian Point could mean relying more heavily on natural gas, extracted by controversial hydrofracking techniques.

Even if the state does succeed in finding replacement sources for Indian Point, closing Indian Point won’t mean that New York City is immediately safe from the hazards of nearby nuclear materials. The process of decommissioning a nuclear plant takes years. Indian Point hosts three nuclear reactors; one is already inactive, but Entergy, which owns all three, has delayed decommissioning it until a second reactor ceases operations.

Decommissioning doesn’t necessarily require Entergy to move the nuclear materials left over from the generation process from the decommissioned site. There’s still no national facility for storing used nuclear material, and it’s common for nuclear materials to remain on the site of a decommissioned plant.

The federal government requires companies that own nuclear reactors to set aside funds to decommission their plants and draft a plan to decommission them, so in theory, Entergy should be prepared to shut down the plant, should its bid to renew the reactors’ licenses fail. In 2009, however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission discovered that Entergy’s fund for decommissioning one Indian Point reactor fell short. In 2010, the company and the NRC agreed that Entergy could store nuclear materials onsite until 2063, under conditions that safely allow the radioactivity to decay.

Right now, the majority of Indian Point’s spent fuel is stored in the same sort of cooling tanks that proved a problem at Fukushima. If the plant was decommissioned, the fuel would likely be stored differently, in dry casks. In this storage method, the spent fuel is placed in steel casks, which are in turn stored in ventilated concrete capsules. Since 2008, Entergy has stored some of its spent fuel in dry casks, which the NRC says would keep the materials safe during an earthquake.

“They’re designed to not move during earthquake activity,” Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC, said. “Unlike the spent fuel pools, they don’t use water, pumps or valves. They don’t use electricity. They’re very self-sufficient.”

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NYU vs. Greenwich Village: Round 2

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, March 21st, 2011

Round two of the battle between NYU and its neighbors begins tonight. Last week, the university released its revised plan for redeveloping what it calls the school’s Core area, and tonight Community Board 2 will meet for the first time to consider the revised plans. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which has led the opposition to NYU’s development, is urging its members to attend the meeting in order to “find out more and express your opinion.”

In the last series of these sorts of meetings, in which NYU presented its plans and courted the community board’s approval, GVSHP and its allies were vocal about their opinions. CB2 has a history of opposition to development: It was the setting for Jane Jacobs’ campaign against Robert Moses, and she later served on the board. These days, meetings that feature NYU’s plans are punctuated with hisses and impassioned defenses of the neighborhood and its history. Comment sessions go on for hours, and neighborhood activists might even put their opposition into song.

The changes that NYU is proposing would affect primarily two “superblocks” below West 4th Street. These blocks are a Moses legacy; he razed the area’s tenement buildings as part of a slum-clearance program in the 1960s and handed over part of the newly empty land to NYU. The southern block features three residential towers designed by I.M. Pei, and NYU originally planned to add a fourth tower to that site. The school backed away from that plan in November when Pei expressed his disapproval. NYU’s updated plan edges its new construction away from the Pei towers, to opposite corners of the same block.

For GVSHP and its allies, however, the plan represents only a minor concession. The school is still asking the city to hand over space that’s currently used by the community — an issue that’s been a sticking point since the process started. The main disagreement, though, between the school and its opponents is whether NYU should be building tall buildings in the neighborhood at all. As GVHSP director Andrew Berman wrote to the press, the new plan is “more of the same from the university which has overbuilt, oversaturated, and overdeveloped in this neighborhood for decades.  A fundamentally better plan for the university and for the city as a whole would be for NYU to channel this massive growth to places like the Financial District.”

Neighborhood activists are not the only challengers that NYU must parry, either, in its quest to expand. The school has made Governors Island a key part of its plans: It identifies the island as one of the remote sites on which it plans to build, dispersing its presence throughout the city instead of concentrating it so heavily in one area. In the NYU plan, Governors Island could be a site for, in particular, the school’s scientifically oriented work.

But the mayor’s office announced last week that schools from all over the world are interested in working with the city to building science-focused campuses. If the mayor’s office picked a different school to sponsor, that school wouldn’t necessarily steal the space NYU wants. But a nod from the city would certainly smooth NYU’s path to developing a Governors Island campus.

One huge advantage to that space? Nobody lives there already.

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New York on Ethics Scandals: Meh

With so little public outrage over the stream of scandals in Albany, ethics reform is taking a backseat to the budget.
By Sarah Laskow
Monday, March 14th, 2011

Sen. Carl Kruger

When I talked to the Center for Public Integrity’s Caitlin Ginley last week, she reminded me that, as a rule, ethics reforms pass only when some sort of scandal prompts citizens to outrage and politicians to action.

New York seems determined to break that rule.

Last week, the FBI announced charges against yet another Albany politician. This time, the offender was State Senator Carl Kruger. Kruger is accused of a slew of misdeeds — of being bought off in most of the ways one can be bought off.

In one scenario, a lobbyist would receive money from a client and deposit a certain sum in a bank account linked to Kruger. Kruger would then finagle whatever government action the client needed — generally to have bill delayed or pushed forward or to enlist Kruger’s voice for or against a certain cause. The complaint against Kruger also charges that, in at least one case, Kruger took bribes directly. In another scenario, the complaint alleges, Kruger would steer influence-seekers to Solomon Kalish, who would accept the money and split it with Kruger.

In many states — in most states, even — this sort of scandal would be enough to send legislators running to their desks, ready to vote for ethics reform to prove to the public that this is not how we do business here. But not in Albany.

Ethics reform is on the table, sure. But in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, no one is rushing to the state house to pass some version of the ethics reform legislation that’s been kicking around since Gov. Paterson was in office. Gov. Andrew Cuomo reiterated that it was a priority this term, but that only earned him an ear-boxing from powerful New York Post columnist Fred Dicker, who’s generally been positive about Cuomo’s term so far.

“It’s hard to understand how a skilled strategist like Cuomo could miss such a once-in-a-political lifetime opportunity,” Dicker wrote.

But perhaps Cuomo is wise to keep a tight hold on his political capital for now. He says he wants to pass a budget before tackling ethics. If he made ethics reform a priority right now, before the budget passed, both Republicans and Democrats would have more bargaining chips: They could trade their votes on ethics for this or that provision in the budget. If he waits until the budget passes, Cuomo can count the political chits he has left, before forming his strategy for ethics reform.

Plus, ethics reform can only exert an indirect influence on the sort of corruption that Kruger is accused of. If you ever read an ethics statute, you’ll find that the space dedicated to guarding against this behavior is minimal: Usually there’s one or two lines stating that quid pro quos are illegal.

Ferreting out corruption, though, is generally left to the feds. Ethics bodies don’t have the money or authority to do the type of investigation that fingered Kruger. Instead, they spend their time dealing with less salacious claims, like the one The Center for Justice & Democracy filed against the Medicaid Design Team.

The best that ethics laws can do is send a signal to politicians in office and to potential candidates that this sort of behavior isn’t tolerated. But in New York, it is tolerated. Some politician is going to have to take far more than $1 million in bribes to really get this state’s outrage going.

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On Ethics Reform, Loopholes, and What We Can Learn from Meds

By Sarah Laskow
Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Eliot Spitzer

Does it matter if, in Albany, legislators receive gifts from lobbyists and how much those gifts are worth? This problem is a small knot in the vast net of ethical questions that’s snared the capital and its inhabitants. But each time a legislator or an ethics commissioner tries to untangle it, someone else with an interest in the question is pulling it tight from the other end.

Once Albany was a place where legislators could collect goodies from lobbyists without much hesitation. The gifts they received were not necessarily big ticket items: In some states, it’s legal for government officials and legislators to receive gifts with price tags running into the hundreds, even thousands of dollars, as long as they report them. In New York, up until 2006, legislators could only receive gifts from lobbyists worth less than $75. But they could receive as many as they wanted, which means that a lobbyist could fund an afternoon of golf, a significant round of drinks, a lavish dinner, and late-night round of bowling (or whatever it is people got up to after hours) without breaking any rules.

But in 2006, that changed when the Lobbying Commission, then one of three Albany institutions charged with overseeing the capital’s ethical behavior, interpreted the relevant restriction to mean that lobbyists could only give legislators $75 worth of gifts, in total, each year. The Ethics Commission, which policed the executive branch, already adhered to this interpretation of the law. The Legislative Ethics Commission stuck to the old, more permissive definition, even though legislators’ leeway to accept an infinite number of $75 gifts was moot once lobbyists were barred from that sort of gift-giving.

In 2007, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s ethics reform changed the system altogether. “Gifts” legally could not exceed “nominal value,” although the law included a handful of exceptions to that rule, including, notably, tickets, food, and beverages at “widely attended” events.

In most capitals, when the legislative and executive branches agree to crack down on egregious gift giving, the new status quo quickly emerges and stands. Everyone figures out the loopholes — under the federal government’s “toothpick rule,” for instance, which restricts lobbyists from giving lawmakers any nourishment other than finger food, caviar on a cracker or blini is acceptable — and life and lawmaking go on. But not in Albany.

In addition to shrinking down the legal limit for gift-giving, the Spitzer-era reforms merged two of Albany’s three ethics watchdogs. But the city still must report to the Commission on Public Integrity and the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Ethics reform in Albany has dragged on for about a decade at this point: legislators were trying to tamp down gift laws in Albany as early as 2000. This next iteration provides yet another opportunity to tinker with the gift laws, to reinterpret, perhaps, as the Daily News reported last week, “nominal value” as “ten dollars” and to re-evaluate rules that keep legislators and lobbyists from fraternizing at anything other than “widely attended events.”

To a certain extent, at this point, these definitions are just a matter of convenience for everyone involved. Nothing as exciting as tickets to the Super Bowl is at stake here; it’s just a question of what lobbyists and legislators consume when they meet, as they inevitably will.

“The amount doesn’t really matter, if you’re talking about an amount that small,” said Caitlin Ginley, a reporter (and former colleague) at the Center for Public Integrity, who covers issues of state ethics across the country. “It’s more about access than it is about the money. If a lobbyist is taking a lawmaker out for lunch, it doesn’t matter if it’s a cup of coffee or a sandwich. It’s about the face time, out of the public eye.”

Changes to the rules governing events could have a bigger impact, though. The issue here arises, as with the old, $75 rule, from conflicting interpretations of ethics laws by Albany’s ethics watchdogs. (For the record, most other states do not have this problem; although the work of ethics oversight may be split among different governmental bodies, generally only one has the power to interpret the laws that govern the behavior of the participants.) In this case, the Commission on Public Integrity has, for all intents and purposes, banned lobbyists from holding receptions, no matter how widely attended they might be. The Legislative Ethics Commission, on the other hand, thinks those sorts of events are fine.

In the new law, Blair Horner of NYPIRG explains, the legislature could “reconcile those competing interpretations of the law. It could either be not much of a big deal — or a big deal. If lobbyists are allowed to have lavish receptions in private with elected officials, I’d have a problem with that.”

If Albany lobbyists are fed up with this sort of back and forth regulating their behavior, they might want to look outside of the field for a path forward. Outside of government, there’s another industry that grappled with the ethical propriety of business-seekers giving gifts to business-givers. In the medical community, it was common for years for representatives of drug companies to take doctors out to fancy dinners and deliver gifts both of large and nominal value.

In 2008, however, under the leadership of former legislator, now lobbyist, Billy Tauzin, PhrMA, the drug companies’ trade and lobbying organization, decided with its members to unilaterally end the practice of gift-giving altogether.

“We are also concerned that our interactions with healthcare professionals not be perceived as inappropriate by patients or the public at large,” the group’s Code of Ethics states. It still permits “modest, occasional meals” but  prohibits gifts items of even “minimal value,” which includes the branded “pens, note pads, mugs,” and so forth that used to pepper doctors’ offices. This code may give the drug reps fewer opportunities to schmooze with their customers, but at least they’re the ones who control its terms.

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Why Ed Koch Is Optimistic About Redistricting Reform

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, February 28th, 2011

Ed Koch

NY Uprising, the good government group founded by former mayor Ed Koch, keeps an official list of “enemies of reform.” Throughout 2010, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was on it, for his refusal to promise change on issues like ethics reform. But now, based on his support for an independent redistricting committee, Silver may be coming off the enemies list.

“I’m going to take him down,” Koch told State Room on Tuesday. “He’s introduced the governor’s legislation!”

Of the reform issues that the former mayor has been pushing since the outset of the 2010 election season, the first one to face political reckoning is redistricting reform. In mid-February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his plan for an independent redistricting commission, which would take the responsibility for drawing district lines out of the hands of self-interested legislators. Silver sponsored the Assembly’s version of the bill, and last week, he began more openly canvassing for co-sponsors. Koch will be in Albany tomorrow, working to push the bill into law.

“I believe we’re on the cusp of victory,” he said. “As a result of our efforts last year, including getting candidate — now governor — Andrew Cuomo on board, we have a huge chance of prevailing.”

While Cuomo has embraced this sort of good government pushes, throughout the campaign season, Silver resolutely stayed mum, earning him his “enemy status.” (Nothing personal, of course, says Koch. “Shelly and I go back 40 years,” Koch said. “We’re very good friends. I want to be able to say: Shelly Silver is my leader.”)

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos did sign the NY Uprising pledge promising to support their reforms. But in recent weeks, he hasn’t exactly jumped to support the governor’s plan, which would give rise to a commission that would not include legislators, their aides, lobbyists, or other too-interested parties.

“There’s a whole list of prohibitions,” said Koch, who’s scheduled to meet with Skelos and Silver, among others, tomorrow. “Those are what’s intended to keep the ultimate committee one we can all be proud of.”

At one point in New York State’s history, the state was apportioned into districts according to something resembling common sense. The map below, from the archives of the New York Public Library, represents the state’s senatorial districts in the mid-1800s:

Courtesy of The New York Public Library (www.nypl.org)

At the time, there were only eight districts, but each one consisted of particular counties. The first district, for instance, contained the most heavily populated areas: New York, Kings, and Richmond (that is, Staten Island).  The second district contained the area around that — the two Long Island counties of Queens and Suffolk, and counties directly north of the city, like Westchester, Rockland, and Orange.

Over time, however, those lines have been distorted according to the political whims of those in power at the time. This map traces the borders of state senate districts, as they were drawn in 2002, after the last census:

Instead of each district containing multiple counties, each county might contain multiple districts.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the independent commission will change this situation and create rational districts out of the multi-limbed beasts that currently dot the state. As Koch says, the success of his push for reform will only be clear once an independent commission does its work.

“You’ll see the lines,” he said. “Are the districts compact? Or do you see salamanders running around?”

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Painting the Town White

Studies show that white rooftops reduce carbon emissions and air-conditioning costs. But could they work throughout NYC? The roof at MoMA QNS might tell us.
By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

The roof at MoMA QNS was painted white as part of PlaNYC.

About a year and a half ago, the city painted the roof of MoMA QNS white as part of PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s long-term strategy for New York. During the 2009 pilot project, volunteers coated a total of 100,000 square feet of rooftops in Long Island City, and last year the city exceeded its goal of painting another 1 million square feet of roofs, according to a spokesperson at the Department of Buildings.

By reflecting sunlight back into space, white roofs keep buildings cooler than black roofs do, limiting the need for air conditioning and reducing the city’s carbon emissions. But, like everything in the city, the roofs get dirty. “When they’re new, they’re white as snow,” said Stuart Gaffin, a research scientist at Columbia University, who is working to monitor the efficacy of the roofs. Today, the roof of MoMA QNS is closer to the color of dirty dishwater and is dotted with black puddles.

Gaffin had said that that white roofs can be unpleasant places to spend time. In the summer, they’re hot. “You really have to slather yourself with suntan lotion,” he warned. And, at least at first, they’re so bright as to be off-putting. “When you step on these white roofs, you start thinking, “Get me off of this,”” he said. “You’ll see what I mean.”

But on an unseasonably warm February afternoon, this white roof was a perfectly pleasant place to spend an hour. In the year and half since it was first painted, dirt and soot have coated the once-white surface, and the paint, which is smooth when first applied, had sunk into the roof’s bumpy surface, and the asphalt beneath was peaking through.

Scientist Stuart Gaffin measures the amount of sunlight reflected by the white roof at MoMA QNS.

Gaffin’s job is to measure those sort of changes. “This bumpiness, I’ve found, is not good for reflection,” he said. He considered the roof’s overall condition. “This is worse than I thought it would be,” he said.

There’s no question that white roofs do more to combat climate change than traditional black roofs. Black roofs absorb most of the heat and light that hits them, contributing to what’s called the urban heat island effect, the tendency of cities to trap and retain more heat than suburban or rural areas. (It’s why, for instance, in the summer, city streets are still sweltering hours after the sun has gone down.) On a federal level, energy secretary Steven Chu has endorsed white roofs, and President Obama’s recently released budget chalks up millions of dollars in savings to plans to paint roofs of government buildings white. In New York City, as part of PlaNYC, since 2008 the building code has required most new roofs to have most of their area covered with some sort of reflective white coating.

The data Gaffin collects will help the city construct a longer term white roof strategy. Last Friday, he was up on the MoMA QNS roof, installing pyranometers, devices that will measure the sunlight coming from the sky and the light that’s reflected off the roof. The difference will show how much light the roof is absorbing, or conversely, how much light it’s reflecting.

“Essentially, we’re measuring dirt and soot,” Gaffin said. One thing that’s not clear yet is how typical this roof might be. It’s down the block from an overland subway station, and right next to Queens Boulevard, which could make it particularly dirty.

The puddles are another problem; they’re scattered across the rooftop, and they’re black, which lessens the roof’s effectiveness. Gaffin also pointed out that the layer of paint on the roof doesn’t seem as thick as it was supposed to be, a quarter to a half inch thick. When Marty Odlin, a staffer helping with the installation, pulled up a wire that was painted over, exposing the asphalt roof underneath, it was clear that the paint was no more thick than a few sheets of paper.

The paint used for the roofs is a specific type, an elastomeric acrylic that has some elasticity to it, so it can stretch and contract with the roof as the temperature changes. It’s not the only option for coating a roof, but the alternatives are roofing membranes that require professional installation. The city’s white roofs program has recruited and used volunteers to meet its goals so far; painting roofs white could also turn into a low-skill green job.

While white roofs are relatively easy to install, one of the questions Gaffin’s research will help answer is how much maintenance they’ll need to retain their advantage. Will the city need to commit to cleaning them regularly, for instance? Or should the strategy be to invest in the roofing membranes, which, Gaffin says, tend to hold up better over time?

But the choice of rooftop materials isn’t black or white, so to speak. Green roofs — usually roofs paneled with shallow boxes of low-growing plants — cool the city, are more pleasing to the human eye, and help clean the air of pollution. In the past few months, as part of the NYC Green Infrastructure plan, the mayor’s office has also started touting blue roofs, which are designed to capture and store rainfall, reducing the burden on the city’s wastewater system. The city is putting money behind this plan, as well: last year the city’s Department of Environmental Protection awarded $2.6 million for green infrastructure projects, including green roofs, and the beginning of February, the department announced $3 million in grant money available for this year.

White roofs, though, are still the simplest and cheapest option. The instruments that Gaffin began installing last week will monitor the MoMA QNS roofs, recording data every 15 minutes, finding out how dirty the roof really gets over time — how long it takes for a white roofs to become brown.

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