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Uncertainty looms as State Legislature enters the end of session

The Senate in Albany is in a 31-31

The Senate in Albany is in a 31-31 deadlock in a chamber in which 32 votes are needed to pass any bills. Credit: Hans Pennink / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The annual end of the state legislative session is always chaotic, leading to very long days in order to pass a slew of essential local laws while also trying to negotiate major statewide policy.

But this year’s final three scheduled days of the legislative session are even more unpredictable than usual.

First, the Senate is in a 31-31 deadlock in a chamber in which 32 votes are needed to pass any bills. Add to that a re-election campaign season that has begun early, exacerbating an ideological gridlock between the Democrat-led Assembly and Republican-led Senate over big-ticket proposals.

So far, major bills such as legalizing sports gambling now appear unlikely to pass. There are also obstacles to uncoupling student scores on standardized tests from teacher evaluations, which politically powerful teachers unions are seeking to do before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to link the two begins in 2019, senators and Assembly members agreed.

So while the Legislature has passed a flurry of mostly local bills — such as extending counties’ sales taxes, naming highways for veterans, and other measures such as creating a license plate commemorating the Jamaican bobsled team — many major statewide initiatives, such as the Democrats’ hope to end bail in most criminal cases, have been blocked by Senate Republicans or have just three days to become part of a late deal.

“It’s survival time, when the politics of the re-election campaigns outweighs other considerations, which is perfectly understandable,” said Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman who teaches at the Wagner School at New York University. “As Sir Francis Drake said, ‘The knowledge that one is to be executed in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully.’ ”

Assembly and Senate members are considering a deal offered in a bill Assemb. Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) submitted Wednesday night that would combine a measure sought by Assembly Democrats to renew and expand a law expiring this year that has installed speed cameras near schools in New York City with a bill sought by upstate Republican senators to install cameras on school buses as a safety measure.

The result is what has become a rare bill that the Senate and Assembly could agree upon.

Cuomo has traditionally played a big role in the closing days of session. He’s been pushing at press events for his “red flag bill” that would empower teachers and other school officials to report suspicious or concerning behavior by a student to a judge, who could then end the student’s access to firearms. But senators and Assembly members said Cuomo hasn’t held the usual end-of-session negotiations to get the bill passed and noted he’s already using the issue in his campaign.

“If the Republicans refuse to pass it, then people have a right to know they refuse to pass it,” Cuomo told reporters last week in regard to his bill.

Senate Republicans had sought a bill to place “school resource officers” — usually local police — in New York City schools, but the Assembly’s Democratic majority has rejected that.

Some additional measures making their way to possible votes next week include a measure strengthening penalties for “revenge porn” posted to the internet and creating a commission to discipline prosecutors for overstepping their powers.

Among bills aimed at Long Islanders moving to votes next week is one to authorize the Nassau Interim Finance Authority to issue $400 million more in long-term bonds to pay commercial tax grievance settlements and provide the county with more flexibility to access more than $100 million to pay refunds to commercial property owners faster.

Another bill that made progress last week but which faces a difficult deadline to get to the floor is “Brianna’s Law,” which would require power boat operators to complete an in-class safety course. It is named for Brianna Lieneck, an 11-year-old from Deer Park who died when she was struck by a boat being driven at high speed by untrained operators.

Cuomo also wants the Legislature to adopt his bills to prohibit the lease of land for offshore drilling and exploration in state waters, a “Save Our Waters” bill aimed at blocking the Trump administration from allowing gas and oil exploration. Cuomo also wants the Legislature to support his project to build a rail connector and air train station to LaGuardia Airport.

Democrats privately say they have little interest in giving up much to the Senate’s Republican majority for goals such as eliminating cash bail in most cases, because they are banking on taking the Senate majority in the November elections.

A wild card, however, could change next week’s game in a big way. Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville) has been absent from Albany since May when he announced he won’t seek re-election and instead has rejoined the U.S. Navy, where he had spent eight years on active duty, and is now in training.

He would be the Senate Republicans 32nd vote, which would return the power to control legislation to the GOP, but his colleagues say they haven’t heard whether Croci of if he will return next week. Senators have mostly resigned themselves to thinking he won’t return since he failed to attend an event earlier this month in Albany in which he was named Italian-American Legislator of the Year.

His absence complicates attempts to reach a deal on major items.

“We’re at a spot that it could go either way right now,” a veteran legislative staffer said. “The best way to get something done is negotiating a package so they all have an incentive to come to the table. The alternative is nothing gets done.”

Cuomo, seeking his third term, has already started blaming Senate Republicans, who were among his closest allies for most of his two terms.

“They’re putting their politics above the interests of the people of this state,” Cuomo said last week.

Cuomo “has put politics ahead of the public interest,” Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) shot back, “and made it virtually impossible to achieve meaningful progress for the people of the state.”

Despite the campaign-like rhetoric, such blow-ups in past years have preceded a flurry of deal making. Several rank-and-file legislators said last week they hope that Albany pattern continues next week.

What’s not on the table these past few days is also important. That includes ethics and anti-corruption bills in a year in which some of Cuomo’s top aides as well as former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assemb. Sheldon Silver faced corruption trials.

“When it comes to corruption, the only sound I hear is critics,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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