Multiple STAR proposals in play in state budget talks

Perhaps the biggest issue involving New York’s STAR tax-relief program in budget negotiations under way in Albany is whether – and when – the state will reverse last year’s botched change in how new homeowners receive that tax break.

But several other potential alterations are on the table as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders attempt to finalize a spending plan by next Friday, before the next fiscal year begins.

For instance, the Cuomo administration has proposed requiring senior citizens to apply to the state Department of Taxation and Finace to verify their incomes in order to qualify for the Enhanced STAR break, rather than renewing their eligibility through their local assessors each year. State officials have argued the state’s oversight is needed to reduce errors, while assessors dispute that justification and warn that a state takeover would be as disastrous as last year’s change.

Both the Senate and Assembly rejected that income-verification mandate in their budget resolutions this month.

The Senate Republicans’ budget resolution also rejected the Cuomo administration’s proposal to cap growth in the STAR benefit, and proposed to extend the program’s tax relief for homeowners to small businesses for their first time. Their proposal would offer the tax break to businesses with less than $350,000 in net annual income and fewer than 20 employee

Both chambers of the Legislature want to rescind last year’s controversial change in the 20-year-old STAR program, in which new homeowners must get checks from Albany for their school-tax savings, rather than have it taken off their tax bills. The difference is that Senate Republicans would wait until next year, while demanding the state pay interest to any beneficiaries whose checks are mailed after Sept. 15. The Assembly already has voted unanimously to repeal the change this year.

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No charges in de Blasio campaign finance probe with Ulster ties

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced this week it would bring no criminal charges in an investigation into complaints that aides to Mayor Bill de Blasio had funneled large campaign donations through Democratic committees in Ulster and other counties in 2014 to support Democratic state Senate candidates and bypass the state’s limits on how much could be given to them directly.

In a letter sent and made public on Thursday, D.A. Cyrus Vance told Risa Sugarman, chief enforcement counsel for the state Board of Elections, that the “transactions appear contrary to the spirit and intent” of the contribution limits, but that they would not result in criminal charges. That was because the aides were acting on their attorney’s advice, and because there was no evidence the donors had directed their money ultimately go to specific candidates.

One beneficiary of the largesse was former Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, a Democrat who represented part of Ulster County for one term and was ousted in 2014 by George Amedore, a Republican who still holds that seat. According to the letter to Sugarman, prosecutors found that the Ulster Democratic Committee was given four contributions totaling $364,000 in October 2014, and that the committee gave Tkaczyk’s campaign $330,000 eight days later. The senator, in turn, paid a political consultant $320,000 after getting the money.

Though there was no evidence of a crime, Vance concluded that the “closely managed coordinated plan” de Blasio’s aides followed “creates an end run around the direct campaign contribution limits by taking advantage of inconsistent provisions in the Election Law.”

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Cahill, Seward wield dueling bills to legalize ride-hailing upstate

Two state lawmakers representing parts of Ulster County are again playing key roles in the prolonged push to legalize Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services upstate, each as chairman of an insurance committee and sponsor of a bill laying out the rules for how those companies would operate in New York.

Sen. James Seward

The version introduced by Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, already sailed through the Senate in a 55-5 vote on Feb. 6. Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, wheeled out his proposal on March 10. Both men also carried versions of the legislation last year, but the two chambers failed to reconcile differences over levels of liability insurance that ride-hailing companies would be required to carry for their drivers, among other differences. Uber blitzed the state with ads in vain late in the year to push for a legislative deal.

The two bills introduced this year still differ on insurance coverage, with the Assembly bill requiring higher levels. Cahill’s bill, A6661, would demand policies that provide at least $75,000 per person and $150,000 per incident for death and injury, plus $200,000 “excess liability” when a driver is logged in but has not yet agreed to give a ride and $1.5 million once the driver is headed to a pickup or has a passenger aboard.

Seward’s bill, S4159, would require coverage of $50,000 per per person or $100,000 per incident when a driver is logged in but not driving anyone, and $1 million while the driver is transporting a passenger.

There is also a sharp divide on how much rides would be taxed. Seward wants to waive sales tax but charge a 2 percent tax per ride, with half of the revenue going to the state for transportation projects and half going to county governments for mass transit programs. Cahill’s bill would simply apply the local sales tax rate, which is 8.125 percent in Orange County and 8 percent in Sullivan and Ulster.

Still another option is the 5.5 percent tax Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in his budget this year.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill

Another potential sticking point is whether the legislation will allow municipalities like Newburgh and Monticello to license and regulate ride-hailing companies in the same way that they now do taxi companies. Cahill’s bill would grant that authority, specifying that municipalities can decide how many ride-hailing drivers can operate in their jurisdiction; it’s unclear if the Senate bill would allow or prohibit local regulations.

A vocal counterweight in Uber’s full-court press to expand throughout New York – ride-sharing currently is legal only in New York City – has been the Upstate Transportation Association, a voice for upstate cab companies. The association has demanded, for instance, that the legislation specify that criminal background checks of drivers include fingerprinting. More recently it has called out Uber for revelations that it had used “greyballing” tactics to evade authorities in places where it operates illegally.

The Times Herald-Record found first-hand that Uber allows its drivers to collect fares illegally right here in the Mid-Hudson.

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Assembly Dems offer changes to Cuomo tuition proposal

Assemblymen James Skoufis of Woodbury and Kevin Cahill of Kingston are among a group of Democrats urging their conference leaders to modify Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for free tuition at SUNY and CUNY by raising the income threshold for those who would qualify, enabling households with a combined income of up to $175,000 to claim the benefit.

Cuomo’s proposal sets the earnings cutoff at $100,000 for this fall, $110,00 next year and $125,000 thereafter. In a letter to Speaker Carl Heastie last month, Skoufis, Cahill and 29 other Democrats argue those levels are too low to capture the full middle-class, especially in higher earning areas like the Hudson Valley and Long Island. “Despite its pronouncement to the contrary, the current plan does not benefit large swaths of New York’s middle-class,” they wrote.

The group also suggested excluding federal Pell grants from calculations of what the state must pay to fully cover tuition at state colleges and universities for qualifying students. Rather than subtract that funding from the “Excelsior Scholarship” the student would get for tuition, the Assembly members argue that students should be able to use Pell grants for substantial other expenses, such as room and board.

In addition, the letter writers proposed softening the requirement that students take 15 credit hours of classes every semester or else forfeit their free tuition. “This punitive provision fails to adequately take into account the variety of circumstances that may prompt a student to temporarily scale back their credit hours,” they said.

Instead, they suggested requiring recipients to graduate from two-year colleges within three years and four-year colleges within five.

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Neuhaus plans 2017 campaign kickoff

Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus has scheduled a fundraiser in April that will also serve as the kickoff for his campaign to win a second term in office this November.

The event will take place at the Palacio Conference Center in Goshen on the evening of April 6, right after Neuhaus delivers his annual State of the County address. Tickets cost $50; “sponsors” are invited to spend between $250 and $2,500 on groups of tickets.

Neuhaus, a Republican and former Chester town supervisor, beat former county legislator Roxanne Donnery in 2013 for a four-year term as county executive, succeeding three-term Republican Ed Diana. He had around $195,000 in his campaign coffers as of mid-January. Michael Sussman, the civil rights attorney and Democratic activist, has said he’s considering running for county executive this year, but thus far no Democrat has formally entered the race.

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Larkin holds fundraiser for 2018 campaign

Despite uncertainty in the political world last year about whether state Sen. Bill Larkin would run for a 14th Senate term, the 89-year-old lawmaker is set to hold a campaign fundraiser in Orange County tonight to fatten his coffers for yet another re-election race in 2018.

Invitations to the reception at Anthony’s Pier 9 in New Windsor came from Newburgh philanthropist Bill Kaplan – Larkin’s friend and chairman of his finance committee – and bill the event as a celebration of Larkin’s election victory four months ago. The reception is scheduled for 6-8:30 p.m.; tickets cost $75, although corporate donors are encouraged to shell out anywhere from $500 to get a pair of tickets and their companies’ names displayed to $5,000 for a full table and the same promotion opportunities.

Larkin, a Republican who lives in Cornwall-on-Hudson, won a resounding victory in November over Orange County Legislator Chris Eachus – a New Windsor Democrat who also challenged Larkin in 2012 – despite refusing to debate him or be interviewed. He had almost $55,000 in his campaign account as of January.

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Democratic candidates lining up for 2018 runs in NY-19

Three Democratic candidates have  wasted little time in filing paperwork to run for New York’s 19th Congressional District, all citing as inspiration an aversion to the policies and rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

Democrats Steven Mitchell Brisee, Brian Flynn and Antonio Delgado have all filed paperwork with the U.S. Federal Election Commission to run in the 19th district. The election isn’t until November 2018.

Current Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, has also filed paperwork to run for reelection in the district.

19th Congressional District candidate Steven Brisee

In Brisee’s FEC paperwork, filed on Dec. 14 last year, he lists his campaign address as 43 Van Werts Lane in Walden, which is in Orange County and not in the 19th Congressional District. In an email exchange, Brisee said he plans to move to Gardiner-area in Ulster County next month. A campaign website for Brisee, 26, says he was born in Cold Spring and attended Wallkill Senior High School.

Brisee, in an interview said he’s worked since January as a policy manager at Citi on regulatory risk, compliance and data security.

“My job is to keep big banks in line,” Brisee said.

Brisee, who’s never ran for political office before, said he decided to run after the election of Donald Trump and wanted to challenge his policies and Faso’s. He said he wants to be a candidate who represents millennials. He’s listed as his own campaign treasurer.

Also filing last month is Brian Flynn, 47, of Hunter in Greene County. His campaign website says he’s a small businessman, entrepreneur and husband with two children who’s spent the last 10 years in manufacturing. He also says he’s been a fighter of terrorism ever since his older brother was killed in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pam Am 103.

In an interview, Flynn said he’s the president of AccuMED Corp., a manufacturer of textile-based medical products that are used in hospitals. Flynn said he was also inspired to run after the election of Trump and concerns about jobs, healthcare, retirement and education. Flynn also cited his experience in working the corridors of power in Congress and other governmental entities to impose sanction after the Lockerbie bombing.

19th Congressional District candidate Brian Flynn

In a piece he penned in 2010 for The Daily Beast, Flynn talked about his family’s work lobbying Congress after the bombing and frustrations about the compassionate release of Abdel Baset al Megrahi, who was convicted in the attack.

Flynn’s campaign treasurer is listed as Jennifer May of Next Level Partners out of Washington D.C. She also served as the treasurer for the campaign of Zephyr Teachout, the Democrat who ran against Faso last year.

According to a story last year in the Buffalo News, AccuMED has been moving its headquarters from Western New York to North Carolina after being offered a slate of business incentives.

The third Democrat, 40-year-old Antonio Delgado of Rhinebeck, filed paperwork to run in late February. Reached by phone, Delgado said he is exploring a run but has not yet made a decision. On his campaign website, he says he’s a father of two.

A LinkedIn page for Delgado shows he’s an attorney for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. A profile on the law firm’s website says he was a 1999 Oxford Rhodes Scholar who received his law degree from Harvard Law.

A 2011 wedding announcement in The New York Times says from 2005 to 2009, Delgado was a hip-hop performer and a chief executive of Los Angels-based music company, Statik Entertainment. He went by the name AD the Voice, according to Hybrid Magazine.

Antonio Delgado, who's exploring a run for the 19th Congressional District

In a brief statement, Delgado said he’s exploring a run because he feels he cannot stand by and watch the “deeply troubling” policies of Faso and the Trump administration.

“As someone who grew up in this area to a family that worked hard to rise into the middle class, I’m exploring a run because I cannot stand by and watch the American dream become unattainable for people in the Hudson Valley. I have received encouragement, but want to use this time to talk to volunteers, community leaders, and everyday people impacted by the deeply troubling policies coming from Faso and Trump,” Delgado said in a statement.

Delgado’s campaign treasurer is listed as Janica Kyriacopoulos out of Washington D.C.

Faso, R-Kinderhook, won election to the open 19th district seat last year after defeating Teachout, an anti-corruption activist. Former Congressman Chris Gibson decided not to run for a fourth term. Though polls showed the race between Faso and Teachout was neck and neck leading up to the election, Faso won by nearly 25,000 votes, about nine points.


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Skoufis touts bill to support full-day kindergarten in 6 districts

Assemblyman James Skoufis advocated on Thursday for a bill he’s cosponsoring that would provide state funding to a handful of school districts in New York that still have half-day kindergarten classes and would use the aid to help pay for the transition to full-day programs.

The Woodbury Democrat and the bill’s main sponsor, Ken Zebrowski of New City, said in their announcement that only six of the state’s nearly 700 school districts, one being Washingtonville School District in Skoufis’ Assembly District, currently don’t have full-day kindergarten. The bill would provide each district funding for five years in declining amounts to help make the transition to full-day programs.

“Early education is critical for children,” Skoufis said in the release. “Full-day kindergarten has been shown to improve academic achievement throughout the rest of their lives. Yet, there are still students across the state who don’t have access to this fundamental building block of their education.”

The release included a statement from Washingtonville schools Superintendent Roy Reese: “There’s so much we’re doing every day in kindergarten that gets children ready to learn, grow and take on the challenges of school. A half day is just not enough time to get our students on track for 21st-century learning.”

The estimated cost of the bill if all six districts participate is $25 million. Skoufis and Zebrowski say they are pushing to include the funding in the state budget now being developed for the fiscal year that begins on April 1.

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Republican senators propose rescinding SAFE Act regs outside NYC

Sen. James Seward other Republican state senators promoted their support this week for a bill that would continue their efforts to rescind new gun regulations imposed by the SAFE Act in 2013, this time with the caveat that the rules could remain in effect in New York City.

Everywhere else in New York outside the city’s five boroughs, the bill would cancel requirements that followed the school massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and that have infuriated gun owners and advocates ever since. Among other things, it would restore the narrower definition of banned assault rifles that predate the SAFE Act; cancel a mandate that pistol owners renew their permits every five years; and restore the ability for family owners to transfer firearms to one another through estates.

All four Republican senators representing Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties – John Bonacic, Bill Larkin, George Amedore and Seward – are co-sponsors of the bill, which was introduced in January. Seward, whose district includes part of Ulster County and who is a vocal critic of the SAFE Act, joined a press release this week touting the legislation.

“The NY-SAFE Act tramples on our Second Amendment rights and has failed to make us safer,” Seward said in the statement. “The entire package is an attack on responsible gun owners who meticulously follow the law – rather than ignore it like the criminal element. I have consistently called for a full repeal of the NY-SAFE Act, and passed legislation in the Senate to reform several of the most onerous portions of the law. I am proud to stand with Senator Ortt and law abiding upstate citizens in this latest effort.”

Larkin, in a separate statement on Friday, said: “In the past we have crafted laws that make important distinctions between the needs of upstate and downstate. The SAFE Act shouldn’t be any different.”

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Two-house bill would undo change in STAR tax-relief program (updated)

A bill introduced first in the Assembly and then in the Senate last week would reverse a major change made last year in the STAR program and help homeowners snarled in the ensuing fiasco make the transition back to the longstanding method in which the state provided that tax relief.

(Update: the Assembly passed the bill today with a resounding vote of 146-0. The Senate hasn’t taken it up yet.)

The Assembly bill was sponsored by Sandy Galef, a Westchester County Democrat who leads the Real Property Taxation Committee, and co-sponsored by 38 fellow Democrats, including Kevin Cahill of Kingston; Aileen Gunther of Forestburgh; Frank Skartados of Milton; and James Skoufis of Woodbury. (A bunch of Republicans, including Karl Brabenec of Deerpark, have now signed on as cosponsors, bringing the total to 60.) The Senate bill was sponsored by Terrence Murphy, a Westchester County Republican, and co-sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats. (Update: there are now six co-sponsors, including Andrew Stewart Cousins, the Democratic minority leader)

The proposal would reverse the state’s conversion of the two-decade-old STAR exemption on school tax bills into a rebate check for all new homeowners who qualify for the assistance – a switch that the state bungled by keeping households waiting months for their checks after having to pay their full school tax bills. Under the legislation, the state would restore the STAR discount on school taxes for all eligible homeowners and take steps to ensure that those affected by the transition get the aid they deserve.

Local Assembly members issued the following statements in support after the bill’s introduction:

“The rebate system caused far too many problems for homeowners who had to dip into their savings or struggled to pay their local taxes while waiting for a rebate check. I have heard the concerns of my constituents and will work to pass this legislation as quickly as possible.” – James Skoufis

“Homeowners have come to rely on the relief provided by the STAR Program.  The changes that were implemented resulted in tremendous strain and extraordinary frustration on too many New Yorkers, including myself.  This legislation will reverse those changes and revert the program back to the way it was.  Being a homeowner is hard enough without more money leaving your pocket.” – Aileen Gunther

“The changes to the STAR program that were included in last year’s budget were unnecessary and harmed many Hudson Valley families. This year we need to correct this injustice, and ensure that homeowners aren’t stuck paying their school tax bills without the assistance of STAR relief and waiting months for the state to send a reimbursement check.” – Frank Skartados

Update: Assemblyman Karl Brabenec, R-Deerpark, issued this statement after the Assembly’s unanimous approval of the bill on Wednesday:

“Gov. Cuomo’s paper check system has been an unmitigated disaster and many residents still have not received their payments despite taxes being due many months ago. Why is it that whenever someone owes the state money collection is not an issue, but when it’s the other way around it takes months to cut a check. I applaud my colleagues in the Legislature for passing this bill and look forward to the Senate following suit.”

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