Future of NY’s ethics body nears

With help from Shawn Ness

Two lawsuits revolving around the future of ethics enforcement is making its way through the courts. One or both will probably end up before the state's top court, the Court of Appeals.

Two lawsuits that could determine the future of ethics enforcement in New York have advanced in the courts in recent weeks.

Either has the potential to send lawmakers back to the drawing board on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature good-government accomplishment — and one could determine whether ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo will take a $5 million hit to his bank account.

Both suits involve the unique structure of the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government that was created in Hochul’s 2022 budget. Like the oft-maligned Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) that preceded it, most of the members are chosen by the elected officials whose behavior is policed by the commission.

But Hochul added an additional twist. There’s a panel run by law school deans that needs to sign off on the appointments.

Cuomo’s case, meanwhile, came after the new commission took steps to continue a JCOPE probe into whether he used state resources to author his memoir on the pandemic. JCOPE had attempted to force him to forfeit the $5.1 million he was paid for the book.

The ex-governor argued that the commission’s structure runs afoul of separation of powers ideals — it can investigate the executive branch, but the governor has only a minority of commissioners and even those are officially appointed by the panel of deans. An Albany County judge sided with Cuomo in September and said the commission is unconstitutional.

A mid-level appellate court granted a stay that allowed the commission to continue to exist. It heard arguments in Cuomo’s case last month, and a decision could be handed down in the coming weeks.

The other lawsuit came about after the panel of deans blocked Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt’s selection of Gary Lavine on the grounds that his previous experience as a JCOPE commissioner “has negatively shaped his expectations regarding the new commission.”

Lavine argued in a suit that the state is “not allowed to delegate the confirmation power to any entity other than the Senate” based on his read of the state constitution, said Brian Ginsberg, a Harris Beach attorney representing Speaker Carl Heastie in the case.

But Ginsberg said that “hundreds of years of constitutional practice and precedence” have backed up the ability of the Legislature to hand power off to a screening commission like this one, and Lavine lost last year.

But that case is also moving forward. Final briefs were submitted to a Rochester-based appellate court last week, and oral arguments are scheduled April 8.

With the two cases on similar timetables, there’s a chance there will be conflicting appellate decisions on the commission’s constitutionality, guaranteeing that the Court of Appeals will weigh in on that subject in the near future.

And it’s a safe bet the losers will still ask the state’s top court to consider their cases even if the appellate courts come to similar conclusions. Bill Mahoney

Gov. Kathy Hochul launched an online timeline to celebrate the New York State Parks' Centennial.

BLAZING A TRAIL: Hochul announced today a new online timeline in celebration of New York State Parks’ Centennial.

The timeline will be arranged by eight chronological eras, and, as of right now, the first two eras are up and running. The first two eras are “Laying the Foundation: 1850-1924,” and “Adopting The Park Plan: 1924-1929.” The rest of the installments will be added throughout the year.

“The New York State Parks Centennial is the perfect opportunity to explore the rich history of our parks and historic sites,” Hochul said in a statement. “Local leaders, philanthropists, businesses and people from across this state worked together to create a nation-leading parks system that has become one of New York’s most cherished recreational and cultural treasures.”

The program will utilize photos, illustrations, paintings, documents, archived footage and maps to tell the story of New York’s parks.

The timeline is one of five initiatives launched to celebrate the centennial of the nation’s oldest parks system. The others consist of an exhibit in the Capitol tunnel; the “Share Your Story Project;” the Centennial Challenge and the release of a merchandise collection.

“When people experience ‘Blazing A Trail,’ they will gain an understanding of the forces that shaped the park system we know and love today and a greater appreciation of this public treasure,” Randy Simons, the commissioner pro tempore of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said in a statement. — Shawn Ness

Mayor Eric Adams was supposed to go on the radio this morning to discuss an agreement between his administration and a construction union, but instead he talked about the shooting on the Brooklyn A train that happened Thursday.

SUBWAY SHOOTING: While ostensibly hitting the airwaves this morning to highlight a new agreement between the administration and an influential construction union, Mayor Eric Adams ended up talking a lot about a shooting on the subway yesterday afternoon, when a scuffle on a Brooklyn A train ended with one person shot in the head and in critical condition.

As subway safety has become a political hot potato as of late, Adams talked up his administration’s recent efforts to bolster NYPD ranks underground. He also called on state lawmakers to strengthen Kendra’s Law, the statute that allows officials to involuntarily commit someone deemed to be having a mental health crisis.

“At the heart of this, if you do an analysis … we are dealing with far too many people in our system that are dealing with severe mental health illnesses,” Adams told PIX 11. “And that is why our pursuit to do involuntary removal in Albany and strengthening the Kendra’s law is so important right now.”

While Adams did not mention Kendra’s Law during his annual trip to Capitol earlier this year to outline the administration’s state legislative priorities, his office said he has sought for years to clarify several portions of the law that would make it easier for his administration to intervene when officials deem someone cannot care for themselves.

Meanwhile, the man who shot another man on the subway appears to have acted in self defense, prosecutors said. — Joe Anuta

TENANT PROTECTION: The Adams administration launched a multi-agency initiative today aimed at protecting New York City tenants.

The new “Tenant Protection Cabinet” will facilitate coordination across about two dozen agencies and offices to help ensure renters are connected to resources they need, boost underutilized tenant services and develop policies to make it easier for tenants to access support.

The cabinet will be co-chaired by Maria Torres-Springer, the deputy mayor for housing and Leila Bozorg, the executive director for housing

“Homes are more than brick and mortar — they are places where New Yorkers who rent can build their American Dreams. Together, this cabinet will work to deliver relief for tenants and working-class New Yorkers,” Adams said in a statement. — Janaki Chadha

There's a new campaign to get voters to cast blank ballots in protest of President Joe Biden's stance on a ceasefire in Gaza.

LEAVE IT BLANK: Two former candidates for office in New York City and other organizers this week launched the Leave it Blank NY campaign to encourage voters to cast blank ballots in New York’s primary election in protest of President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

“Tell Biden ‘Count me out for genocide,’ submit a blank ballot on April 2nd,” the website said.

New York does not have the option of write-ins on its ballot, so the workaround is to cast blank ones.

The campaign is paid for by Hesham El-Meligy, a Democrat who ran for New York City comptroller in 2013, and Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a House candidate in Staten Island under the Working Families Party in 2022.

“As Democrats, we know how much is at stake in the upcoming general election, and are deeply concerned by the thousands and thousands of voters who we know are very upset about the fact that Biden has continued to block international efforts for a cease-fire,” DeBarros told Playbook.

DeBarros, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, warned that Biden’s position on the war in Gaza could cost Democrats in November.

“It was devastating to be on the ground in war and to watch families and people flee me and people with me out of absolute terror because of what had been a decade of war,” she said. “And when I look at the videos or the photos that I’ve seen in Gaza, I remember those looks that people had when fleeing or getting gunned down as they are just trying to get flour to survive or humanitarian aid.”

DeBarros hopes that in the next two weeks or so they will have an operational phone bank. She said she has talked to organizers in Minnesota who ran successful phone banks for similar campaigns and spent around $15,000, which is what she is aiming for with Leave it Blank NY.

The campaign has been modeled after ones for voters to cast their votes as “uncommitted” in places like Michigan, Minnesota, Washington and Hawaii. — Shawn Ness

MEDICAID CONCERNS: Nearly 100 patient groups and community health advocates sent a letter to Hochul demanding she address what they deem as a Medicaid funding crisis.

They are calling for her to raise the reimbursement rate for hospitals and nursing homes.

Nearly 4.2 million New Yorkers are on Medicaid. According to the NY State Alliance for Healthcare Justice, the state is paying hospitals 30 percent less than the actual cost of care and 24 percent less for nursing homes.

The push comes as lawmakers and Hochul are at odds over Medicaid funding ahead of the April 1 start of the fiscal year. Medicaid is the largest piece of the state budget when federal funding is included.

“For decades, Medicaid underpayments have created unacceptable health disparities among the vulnerable people we serve, especially in the Latino community, where we face worse health outcomes, shorter life expectancies, and higher rates of infant mortality,” Roxanne Marin, the regional director of Centro Civico in Albany, said in a statement.

The groups said Medicaid’s underfunding negatively impacts those of Black and Latino communities, in particular. — Shawn Ness

MIN WAGE LAMENT: Advocates who are pushing for a change in the state’s minimum wage law were disappointed the Democratic-led Legislature did not include a raise for tipped workers in their budget resolutions this week.

The lack of support for the provision from the state Senate and Assembly likely puts a damper on the measure being included in a final budget agreement by the end of month. But supporters are still holding out hope.

“We urge Governor Hochul to support the inclusion of the bill in the final budget,” Saru Jayaraman, the president of the One Fair Wage coalition, said in a statement. “New Yorkers deserve predictable and stable wages for their hard work.”

Business organizations have pushed back on efforts to hike the minimum wage this year, including for counties north of Westchester. The tipped wage in New York ranges from $10 cash wage plus a $5 credit for food service workers upstate to $10.65 cash wage and a $5.35 credit in the New York City area. Nick Reisman

Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens ranked in the top six nationally for losing the most residents to other states in 2023. (POLITICO PRO)

Sen. Tim Kennedy got an endorsement from Attorney General Tish James for his congressional bid. (Buffalo News)

The New York Thruway is preparing for the eclipse. (Democrat and Chronicle)

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