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Albany lawmakers end 'crazy session' dominated by major scandals, late-game deal-making

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver,

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, right, exits Federal Court in Manhattan after being re-arraigned on new charges on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Silver was arraigned on additional corruption charges. Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY -- In the end, the 2015 session of the State Legislature will be best remembered for the scandals that rocked the New York political world rather than small legislative wins in the final week, analysts and lawmakers said.

The arrests and resignations of the Senate and Assembly leaders and the subsequent internal fights for succession threw a pall over the political scene that overshadowed even a final surge of deal-making, despite Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's claims of extraordinary gains in the session. It also was marked by continued nasty fights between Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, and between Cuomo and Assembly Democrats.

A last-minute flurry of new laws couldn't overcome that, one analyst said.

"This was two of the three most powerful men in the room being arrested and forced to resign this year," said Michael Dawidziak, a Sayville-based political consultant. "Any memory people have of this session is going to be dominated by that. They could have passed the most stunning legislation of all time and it's not going to be remembered for this session. Who can remember what Congress did the Watergate year?"

The tectonic shift in state politics was the arrest of longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) on corruption charges in January and that of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) in May. Silver and Skelos each has pleaded not guilty and retained his legislative seat.

New leadership

Two new leaders were installed -- Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) as speaker and John Flanagan (R-East Northport) as senate leader -- and lawmakers went long stretches with little legislative action. In the final month, the focus became taking care of necessary business, then getting out of town, many lawmakers said. They had to stay eight extra days before reaching a final agreement.

"We covered our bases," Heastie said in a remark that summed it up for some legislators.

In contrast, Assemb. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) said: "It's just a shame that the process in which a session that began with no bills being passed in January and continued with the indictment of two legislative leaders ended in a tumultuous extension of session and an omnibus bill that displays Albany at its worst."

The 2015 session gaveled out at 12:18 a.m. Friday, just after the Assembly gave final passage to a bill dubbed in Albany as "The Big Ugly." It's a moniker applied to a final piece of legislation that often ties together disparate items that appeal to certain blocs of legislators. Putting them together secures enough votes for passage.

This year, the Big Ugly included an extension of the rent-control law and the statewide property-tax cap, a new property-tax rebate and new rules about standardized exams, among other things. It didn't include a private-school donation incentive that Cuomo called his No. 1 end-of-session priority but which Assembly Democrats vehemently opposed. But it contained a $250 million increase in aid to religious and other private schools, a sort of consolation prize.

Lawmakers said they politically couldn't afford to let rent control or the tax cap go out of existence. Any other accomplishments were a bonus.

"We achieved what we needed," said one Democrat.

Others said the session was productive under the circumstances. "Surprisingly, given all the commotion early on, we were able to regroup really fast and were able to move in a unified direction," said Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood).

Upset with governor

But Assemb. Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor said Assembly Democrats were angry with Cuomo. Thiele, an Independence Party member, conferences with Democrats.

"People felt he put Democrats at odds with their political base with his education budget," Thiele said, referring to Cuomo's fight with teachers unions. "Then, he doubled down on it by pushing" the private-school donation incentive.

Cuomo executed stopgap solutions on juvenile justice and civilian-police clashes. He said he'll begin to move 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult prisons while pressing lawmakers next year to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. He'll appoint Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, for one year, as a special prosecutor to handle cases in which police are accused of violence.

Cuomo claimed the package was "very robust" and said the rent law was the "best" ever, although tenant groups widely panned it and said they had been "betrayed." Still, Cuomo said: "At the end of the day, progress is better than stalemate."

For Heastie, the obvious victories were extending rent control and defeating the private-school donation incentive. Both were huge for rank-and-file Assembly Democrats, said Thiele, who was among the minority in supporting the donation incentive.

Flanagan got the property-tax rebate -- a big item for Senate Republicans -- and the tax cap extension. The GOP also largely blocked de Blasio's agenda, one year after he made extensive efforts to turn over Senate control.

"There are a lot of things you can take away from here," Flanagan said at a news conference with Heastie and Cuomo before the final votes. Later, after the Senate passed its last bill and he rose to give the customary closing address, the rookie leader, in an understatement, told his colleagues: "This has been a crazy session."

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