New York speaker's challenges: Budget, ethics, minimum wage, rent control



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In this Feb. 3, 2015 photo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, presides in the Assembly Chamber at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. The new speaker of New York’s Assembly faces a long list of challenges including budget negotiations and his own promise to overhaul legislative ethics. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)


FILE--In this Feb. 3, 2015 file photo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, speaks in the Assembly Chamber after his election as speaker at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. The new speaker of New York’s Assembly faces a long list of challenges including budget negotiations and his own promise to overhaul legislative ethics. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)


ALBANY, New York — Legislative ethics reform. A higher minimum wage. The Dream Act. A $142 billion state budget. Carl Heastie faces no small list of challenges as he takes over as speaker of the New York state Assembly following the arrest of longtime leader Sheldon Silver.

The 47-year-old Bronx Democrat will have to quickly grow into his new position if he is to successfully steer his 150-member chamber and contend with experienced power brokers like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican.

Heastie said he intends to lead through collaboration with the colleagues.

"I've always been a consensus builder. I like to hear other, different opinions," he said.

A few of the big issues Heastie will have to deal with almost immediately:


ETHICS OVERHAUL

Silver's resignation as speaker came after the Manhattan Democrat was charged with taking nearly $4 million in kickbacks and payoffs. It was just one of several recent corruption scandals: on Thursday former Senate Leader Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, was convicted on federal bribery and conspiracy charges. Four other legislative leaders have faced criminal charges in the past six years.

Heastie has outlined a series of reforms including a new Office of Ethics and Compliance led by a non-legislator, new limits on how much outside income lawmakers can earn and greater reporting of outside income and legislative stipends. Outside pay is a central issue in the case against Silver.

Heastie's own records have raised questions as well. He received the third-highest amount of travel and per diem stipends in the Assembly last year, and his campaign finance reports contain tens of thousands of credit card payments for unspecified expenses.


STATE BUDGET

The crafting a state budget in Albany has long come do'wn to what's known in Albany as "the three men in a room": Detailed negotiations between the speaker, the Senate leader and the governor. Cuomo and Skelos have years of experience at the bargaining table, but Heastie is a novice.

Cuomo added a wrinkle to the negotiations when he said he wouldn't sign a state budget that doesn't include legislative ethics reforms.

Still, Heastie is a self-professed numbers guy who is a former budget analyst in the New York City comptroller's office. He dismissed concerns that he'll be overmatched by Cuomo and Skelos and said he'll have the Assembly's 106-member Democratic conference behind him.

"I think the 'three men in a room' is a little overstated," he said. "This conference has always given its leader the ability to go with the message the conference gives him. ... The process is really up to 106 members."


NEW YORK CITY VS. UPSTATE

Heastie is the latest in a long line of Democratic speakers from New York City — a tradition that rankles many lawmakers from upstate. Heastie has vowed to take an upstate tour early in his speakership and to meet with lawmakers from all corners of the state.

Transportation funding will be a major fault line. Downstate lawmakers want to see big investments in New York City's transit systems and airports. Upstate leaders want to spend money on bridge maintenance and the state Thruway to avoid toll increases.


MINIMUM WAGE, DREAM ACT

This year is likely to see another debate over progressive proposals backed by Democrats like Heastie including a higher minimum wage and the Dream Act, which would extend financial aid to students in the country illegally.

Cuomo supports both measures — though he's calling for a much more modest minimum wage increase than New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. But Skelos and other Senate Republicans have shown no willingness to compromise on either issue.

The ongoing standoff over the so-called women's equality agenda will be another challenge for Heastie. The agenda contains provisions to combat domestic violence, human trafficking and discrimination against women along with a measure to codify federal abortion rights. The Senate supports every provision except the abortion measure, but the Assembly has so far refused to split up the package to allow for separate votes.

Some advocates want to break up the package to allow most of its provisions to pass. But others insist the abortion measure must be included. Silver refused to allow separate votes. The decision now falls to Heastie, who hasn't said what he'll do.

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