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Albany leaders negotiating another 'big ugly' megadeal

A statue stands in front of the New

A statue stands in front of the New York State Capitol building in Albany on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Credit: Bloomberg / Ron Antonelli

ALBANY -- Another "big ugly" is lurking in Albany.

That's Albany-speak for what has in recent years become the almost routine megadeals in which unrelated issues that likely wouldn't have passed on their merits alone are negotiated behind closed doors as a single, intertwining pact by the governor and legislative leaders. Good-government advocates see the practice as an affront to the legislative process that leaves most New Yorkers in the dark until the deal is done.

This year's batch of major, divisive issues includes the Senate's goal of making the 2 percent property tax cap permanent; the Assembly's goals of changing the Common Core curriculum and revising a more demanding teacher evaluation system; and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's goals of raising the cap on the number of charter schools and passing an education tax credit that would benefit religious and private schools.

"They are talking about putting it into one big bill, they call it 'the big ugly,' " said one senior Senate Republican about the confidential negotiations. What will be in it? "That remains to be seen," the senator said. "There is stuff no one wants . . . but they will put stuff in. That's part of the strategy."

A Democratic Assembly member agreed, "There will be some stew that everyone can put something into."

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said last week that while "I'm not saying that anything is attached . . . the Senate has a list, we have a list, and if we can come to agreement . . . that's usually what happens."

"I think a lot of it will be packaged to close the session on a high note," said Senate Finance Committee chairman John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse). "My guess is it will be a 'little ugly' that gives everyone a little something they want."

Publicly, all sides say they don't like to link issues they oppose to get issues they want.

Classic big uglies are tied into one agreement, which often can lead to weakening some measures in order to trade them for something else. The bills in the deal are then drafted quickly and voted into law after the constitutional requirement of three days' public review is suspended.

Goals as time runs out

Pressure is building with a dozen session days left before the end of the legislative year on June 17.

Making permanent the 2 percent cap on property tax growth is a priority for the Senate Republicans and Cuomo. But it is opposed by many Assembly Democrats as a bane on school districts. The tax cap bill is usually tied to the extension of the rent control law and tenant protections, which is key for Assembly Democrats in New York City.

Senate Republicans and Cuomo want to increase the number of charter schools, a stance supported by some of their biggest campaign contributors. But it's opposed by teachers' unions that are major contributors to Assembly Democrats.

Each chamber wants to delay or ease Cuomo's more demanding teacher evaluation system adopted in the budget megadeal on April 1. But they take significantly different approaches to changes in the Common Core and its higher standards now vexing some students, parents and teachers.

Extension of the 421-a tax abatement, which is about to expire, is another difficult issue. The tax abatement that was created four decades ago to encourage new housing in New York City has morphed into what critics call a tax break for rich developers, many with strong political connections.

The sunset of the law comes as real estate tax breaks have played a role in two major federal corruption cases in Albany. Federal prosecutors accused former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) of steering legislation involving tax breaks for real estate developers in exchange for campaign contributions and, in Skelos' case, work for his son. They have denied the charges.

Cuomo's proposals

Still kicking around is the push by Assembly Democrats and Cuomo for a Dream Act to provide college aid to immigrants without documentation who were brought to the United States when they were children. It has long been linked to a proposed "education tax credit" to encourage donations to religious and other private schools sought by Senate Republicans and Cuomo.

Expecting action on issues

In a late-session surprise, Cuomo unveiled a $150 million proposal for a tax break for families paying private school tuition as well as his renewed support for the education tax credit.

"The most precious gift we give our children is the education system that we give them," said Cuomo, who attended Catholic schools, in an address in which he quoted Proverbs about the value of education. "It's your child, it's your choice."

Meanwhile, the Assembly last week agreed to extend mayoral control of New York City schools for three years, potentially avoiding what could have been one of the bigger fights with the Senate.

Governors and legislatures like big uglies because they provide action on issues that couldn't gain three-way approval alone on their merits. The complex deals also provide some political cover for officials who can defend a bill their constituents opposed by saying it was necessary to get a measure they wanted.

The legislature's new leaders, Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, are under pressure to deliver results and avoid what some pundits have predicted will be the most unproductive session in years.

Further, the legislature that has quietly bristled under the yoke of the governor is now emboldened as Cuomo is experiencing record-low poll numbers. And lawmakers face additional pressure to strike deals before next year's elections, when partisan lines harden.

Absent from the final push are any new ethics laws, despite the charges against Silver and Skelos. Flanagan and Heastie both said they don't expect more ethics laws.

"It's appalling," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Horner said Albany is increasingly defaulting to a "big ugly" to resolve divisive issues.

"A 'big ugly' comes together at the last minute, it doesn't get the legislative attention it deserves and lawmakers are often jammed," Horner said. "And sometimes they make mistakes."

"Thoughtful dialogue and appropriate review get thrown out the window," said Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua), now the longest-serving leader in Albany. "It creates a situation where legislators will hold their nose and vote for bills. . . . Big uglies are the worst way to conduct the people's business."


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