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Abortion, women's rights dominate State Capitol

ALBANY -- An attempt to strengthen abortion rights appeared to fail Thursday at the State Capitol when Democrats and Republicans disagreed on whether to separate the issue from a broader package of women's rights initiatives.

On what was expected to be the second-to-last day of the legislative session, lawmakers also confirmed a new chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and additional MTA board members.

And the Assembly passed a measure to allow Suffolk County to sell the Dennison Building and lease it back for a quick infusion of cash. The Senate hadn't acted by late Thursday.

But it was a heated four-hour debate on abortion and a "women's agenda" that dominated the day.

The Democrat-dominated state Assembly passed the 10-point women's rights initiatives by a 97-47 vote, mostly along party lines. The package, authored by Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, includes measures to crack down on human trafficking, domestic violence and workplace discrimination, and to codify Roe v. Wade abortion rights under state law.

Senate Republicans have been saying since January, when Cuomo announced his initiative, that they would block the abortion proposal. They maintained that position, saying they would consider the other nine items this week.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who has been under fire for mishandling sexual harassment complaints against ex-Assemb. Vito Lopez, said Democrats and women's groups wanted all 10 items as a package.

"Passing nine points is not enough. It will not guarantee full equality," Silver said at a news conference flanked by women legislators and activists.

Assemb. Steve Katz (R-Yorktown), who has called for Silver to resign, referred to the Lopez scandal during the abortion debate.

"I have watched this season a legislative body that has protected and supported a speaker with 12-year history of enabling," Katz began before he was cut off by Speaker Pro Tempore Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens), who said the Republican must stick to the bill at hand.

Later, at the news conference, Suzy Ballantyne, one of the leaders of the women's coalition and an AFL-CIO official, dismissed questions about the Lopez scandal as "not germane" to the women's agenda.

In other action, the Senate confirmed Thomas Prendergast as MTA chief executive. The Senate Transportation Committee advanced his nomination to the full Senate after grilling him about recurring fare hikes and congestion at Penn Station.

"It seems like it happens every two to three years," Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) said, referring to the MTA asking for either fare hikes or more state aid.

Prendergast said the MTA is looking at "everything possible" to contain costs. But he added that the MTA "doesn't always operate in the black" because it is a "public service," not a private company. He has said previously that another fare hike could occur in 2015.

Prendergast has already been handling day-to-day operations of the MTA -- North America's largest public transportation system -- since former chairman and chief executive Joseph Lhota resigned in December to run for New York City mayor.

"This is probably the premier job in the industry," Prendergast told senators. "I can't think of a better job to be in."

The Senate also confirmed John Molloy, an engineer from Wantagh, to the board, and reappointed Mitch Pally, a Stony Brook resident who has been Suffolk County's board representative since 2005. Pally backed Prendergast.

"I recently worked with him in his role as interim executive director and he knows what we need, a capital budget, second track and various other issues," Palley said.

With Fausto Giovanny Pinto


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