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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

'Sunsets' keep lawmakers in the power mix

Watching a sunset has its own meaning in state government.

When enacted in Albany, taxes and other major measures often carry various dates of expiration, also known as sunsets. Different laws sunset every session. With legislators now working to adjourn next month, their season for negotiating renewals and amendments is well underway.

Used as a power tool, sunsets "give the lobbyists -- and the politicians who get contributions from them -- another bite of the apple," said a former legislative staffer who declined to be identified. "It makes everything more transactional."

Lawmakers can always change laws. But sunsets force periodic reviews, reopening debates and reviving high-stakes advocacy campaigns within a few years of the previous one.

Not everyone sees Albany's sunset habit through a suspicious lens. One seasoned Albany consultant said that to suggest sunsets are imposed to keep lobbyists' meters running and campaign cash flowing "is a jaded way of looking at it."

"It has less to do with making advocates come back than it does with maintaining checks and balances," the consultant said. "It's a matter of not giving away your authority as a legislature." Also, there are cases in which some parties will agree only to a measure if it has a sunset date.

Motive aside, the sunsetting of laws goes a long way to shape the Capitol agenda and boost legislative clout.

The 2011 sunset of residential rent laws and tax abatements for developers drew recent mention in the pending federal charges against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). FBI complaints delve into the dealings of both leaders with a major-league real estate developer, Glenwood Management.

Laws affecting rent-controlled apartments and developers' tax abatements again face renewal this year. As previously reported by Newsday, some legislators believe simple extensions, without amendment, are likely to occur.

Sometimes a sunset provision can give a legislator extra leverage on matters apart from the merits of the law itself.

In previous years, Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), as deputy speaker, held up extending Nassau County's sales tax -- which requires renewal every two years -- until the villages of Freeport and Hempstead were assured of more county funding. Another such tussle is under way this session. Either way, Nassau's sales-tax rate is expected to remain at 4.625 percent on top of the state's 4 percent.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Senate seem to be using another big sunset this month to tug the leash on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio wanted the law establishing mayoral control of city schools made permanent. The Democratic-run Assembly proposed a five-year renewal. Instead, the law appears headed for a three-year extension.

Not that the state is ready to end mayoral control and, say, force the city to revive its defunct board of education. But de Blasio last year clashed with Cuomo over charter schools, and tried helping Democrats take over the Senate from the majority Republicans. So now, the mayor or his successor will likely face another sunset in 2018 -- and will need to beseech lawmakers anew.

It is easy to see why the ex-legislative staffer calls top legislators "masters of the sunset."


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