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5 Cuomo 'Big Ugly' Legislation Highlights

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Courtesy of the Governor's office

It began at 7 pm on Wednesday and wasn’t finished until after 7 am on Thursday, but Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have hammered out the details on the Governor’s five-point policy agenda for this year’s budget. They're calling the franken-legislation 'The Big Ugly.' Here's what it all means, and who's is and is NOT pleased.

DNA Databank

The first deal announced was the expansion of the state’s DNA databank. Samples will now be collected in any felony or misdemeanor conviction. Defendants will have broader access to the data, which Assembly Democrats had pushed for.

“For too long, a limiting factor to our ability to solve crimes through DNA was the fact the law did not encompass all crimes. This new law will right those wrongs,” Cuomo said in a statement.

“Post-conviction DNA collection for all crimes will undoubtedly produce more leads in criminal investigations,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance in a statement after the deal was announced. “It will not only help convict the guilty and bring closure to thousands of victims in unsolved cases, it will exonerate the innocent.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the state’s commitment to expanding the DNA database. Executive Director Donna Lieberman said that the flood of additional DNA material to crime labs could lead to more errors, either through neglect or intentional tampering.

“As we add more samples -- tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of more samples -- to the database, the danger of fraud and abuse increases, and therefore, the danger of wrongful conviction increases,” said Lieberman.

Nassau County officials shut down their crime lab last year after learning that police officials knew that examiners were producing inaccurate measurements in drug cases even before a national accrediting agency placed the lab on probation.

The Innocence Project in New York also weighed in, saying the legislation does not have enough teeth to substantially prevent wrongful convictions.

“It’s well known that if New York is serious about preventing wrongful convictions, what we need to do is reform our eyewitness identification procedures and record interrogations, just like they do over in New Jersey,” said Stephen Saloom, the policy director of the Innocence Project.

Related: DA's Back DNA Database Expansion

Gambling Legalization

Next was the announcement of a deal to move forward a constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling in New York. Cuomo had not initially wanted details in the constitutional amendment, but the agreement reached would see no more than seven casinos operating in the state.

"By taking these important first steps to legalize casinos we are finally confronting the reality that while New York is already in the gaming business, we need a real plan to regulate and capitalize on the industry," Cuomo said in a statement.

Cuomo's already made some big steps to change the future of gambling in the state, signing a non-binding contract with Asian gaming conglomerate Genting to build a new convention center aside the Queen's Aqueduct Racino.

"This is about creating jobs and enhancing tourism,” said Senator John Bonacic, Chairman of the Senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, in a statement. “While we have been down this road before, this time we have a much better driver. One thing we have learned is when the Governor says something, he means it.”

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the amendment agreement.

“As this process moves forward to potential passage by consecutive state legislatures and a statewide referendum, New Yorkers should hold their elected officials accountable by insuring that they do not allow commercial gaming that serves only to drain community resources and cannibalize the success that local economies have achieved under the existing framework,” said Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida nation, who have been critical of the Governor’s handling of the casino amendment.

Related: A Look at Genting

Teacher Evaluations

Then came the formal announcement of the deal on teacher evaluations. The new evaluation system would be based 60 percent on teacher performance and 40 percent on student academic achievement. Teacher evaluations were a precondition for the state to receive $700 million in federal funding.

"We are writing into law a new national model for teacher evaluations that will put our students first and put New York State at the front of the class when it comes to school accountability," the Governor said in a statement.

"The goal is and always has been to help students – to give them every opportunity to succeed in college and careers," State Education Commissioner John King said in a statement after the announcement. "To make that happen, we need to improve teaching and learning. We owe it to our students to make sure every classroom is led by an effective teacher and every school is led by an effective principal.”

Related: Schoolbook - Test-Driving a Pilot Teacher Evaluation


The next announcement on the “big ugly” came at 5:35 am. The Governor announced a deal that would seenew legislatively-drawn state Senate and Assembly districts get passed in exchange for a constitutional amendment that would take the map drawing pen out of legislators’ hands and put it into their appointees.

"This agreement will permanently reform the redistricting process in New York to once and for all end self-interested and partisan gerrymandering," Cuomo said in a statement. "With the legislature agreeing to pass this historic constitutional amendment twice by a specified date, and passing a tough statute that mirrors the amendment, we have taken a major step toward finally reforming the state's broken redistricting process.”

The final agreement curtailed the ability for the legislature to manipulate the final proposal offered up by the newly created commission in the event lawmakers refuse to accept their maps. Lawmakers’ new plans would not be allowed to “affect more than two percent of the population of any district in the commission's plan”

“Thanks to Governor Cuomo's principled stand and the legislature's willingness to think beyond their immediate political calculations, New Yorkers have an unprecedented opportunity to permanently improve the process of drawing political boundaries to better reflect the needs of New York's communities over the desires of the politicians,” said Dr. Michael MacDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, in a statement.

Advocates who had seen their hopes of having Cuomo honor his promise to veto lines drawn by legislators remained unhappy about the agreement.

“While the Governor worked hard to produce a better outcome, and while there are glimmers of hope for reform in the future, this puts off reform for a decade and forces the voters to endure ten more years of the undemocratic way the Legislature's district lines are drawn,” said former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. “I am disappointed that the Governor compromised.”

Related: Public Battle Begins Over Constitutional Amendment

Pension Reform

Lastly, Governor Cuomo announced a deal had been reached on pension reform. The compromise was the largest scaled-back item on the Governor’s agenda. New public employees going forward would largely remain inside the state’s current pension system. However, contribution rates for employees will increase, as will the age of retirement. Additionally, the ability of employees to use overtime to inflate their final salary calculations is curtailed.

Initially Cuomo had called for all new employees to be offered a 401(k)-style investment option, instead of the current defined benefit system. In the agreement, only non-union employees earning $75,000 or more will be afforded the option.

"This bold and transformational pension reform plan is a historic win for New York taxpayers and municipalities that will save more than $80 billion over the next 30 years, while preserving retirement security for public workers,” Cuomo said in a statement.

The business community supported the agreement, while labor continued to oppose the Governor on the issue.

“Governor Cuomo has achieved a significant breakthrough on pension terms for new state and local government employees,” the Partnership for New York City’s President and CEO Kathryn Wylde said in a statement. “This agreement brings New York more in line with other states and balances the interests of public employees and taxpayers.”

The New York State Nurses Association slammed the legislation, saying it will hurt 'future generations of public sector working women' by making it 'harder to recruit and retain quality employees in many women-dominated professions.'

“This deal is about politicians standing with the 1 percent – the wealthiest New Yorkers – to give them a better break while telling nurses, bus drivers, teachers, secretaries, and laborers to put up and shut up,” said the president of the largest public employee union in the state, CSEA’s Danny Donohue, in a statement.

- with additional reporting by Ailsa Chang, Mirela Iverac, Ilya Marritz and Fred Mogul