Editorial: Albany's mixed bag brings welcome LIPA reform
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The 2013 legislative session didn't come to an end Friday so much as it was put out of its misery.
Highlights that won't be forgotten include state senators led off in handcuffs, charges that the Assembly covered up workplace sexual harassment complaints, and a plot-twisting drama on abortion and other women's issues that exposed the frailty of the leadership coalition in the State Senate that bound Republicans to a breakaway group of four Democrats.
Some important things did get done in the session, but not always as well as one might wish. In the biggest advance for our region, we got an agreement that significantly improves the structure and prospects for the Long Island Power Authority.
The toughest part was hammered out Friday, when a deal on reducing the property taxes of overassessed power plants was agreed to by LIPA, both chambers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. According to the terms, LIPA would drop its lawsuits challenging the assessments and demands for refunds on past overpayments. In return, its taxes would be reduced gradually over 10 years. The reductions vary by facility: For example, taxes on the Port Jefferson plant would be reduced by about 65 percent, or $20 million per year, and those on the Northport plant by about 60 percent, or $44 million per year.
That sounds steep, particularly to homeowners who would have to pick up the slack with higher taxes. But in fact, the offer is generous. Dropping the demand for refunds on past overpayments is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. New, lower assessments on old power plants would still be generous, and a 10-year window to get LIPA's payments down to these levels would be more than fair.
Nassau County, the towns of Huntington and Brookhaven, and villages and school districts that would lose revenue have four months to accept these offers or roll the dice in court. They should take the deal. This agreement -- along with the legislation approved early Friday that reduces seats on the LIPA board, puts virtually all operations in the hands of private operator PSEG of New Jersey, increases oversight, and sets up a framework for refinancing -- has a chance to put the utility in a position to better serve its customers.
There were some other big deals:
A two-year effort to restructure gambling in New York brought Indian tribes in line on paying overdue taxes, and opened the door to licensing three casinos by commercial gaming companies to spur upstate development. But it would allow no casinos downstate for at least seven years.
Two video lottery parlors to be built in Nassau and Suffolk would provide some revenue for local governments and patronage-stuffed off-track betting corporations, but no major casino attractions. The expansion of gambling, however, is contingent on voters approving a referendum to amend the state constitution.
Cuomo fought hard for and won tighter gun control, although the law could have been more precisely constructed.
Tax-free zones for business will be allowed on college campuses and over time may well incubate some industry.
Further, a little bit of tax relief for the middle class was created. And we got a balanced budget on time for the third year in a row.
On the downside, in the wake of noncompetitive elections and corruption investigations, there was no election reform, no campaign finance reform and no ethics reform. That's disappointing.
And an opportunity to reform binding arbitration for labor contracts was missed as the law is set to expire.
The unprecedented coalition formed by Senate co-leaders Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) -- and their agreement not to bring measures to the floor unless both consented -- is likely to reverberate in the 2014 elections after it doomed an attempt to put abortion protections into state law. Klein's breakaway Independent Democratic Coalition favored the abortion bill, but Skelos' Republicans opposed it.
For Long Islanders, this session will be judged on how the reorganization of LIPA works. The rest of the session might just as well be forgotten.