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As rent control languishes, lawmakers debate a state amphibian

ALBANY -- Forget rent control. Or education tax credits. The most spirited debate on the final regularly scheduled day of the State Legislature's 2015 session centered on . . . the official state amphibian.

While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders remained stalled on a rent control law that affects 2 million tenants, state senators held a heated debate over whether to name the wood frog New York's official state amphibian.

It brought charges and countercharges of whether the bill was "asinine" or whether lawmakers were being disingenuous by spending time on it rather than more serious matters. Or if the frog was too "ugly," in one senator's words. Or whether the legislation would "empower" environmental regulators to use the wood frog "as a weapon to dilute property rights."

In the end, the Republican-led Senate approved the designation, 32-31, though it didn't appear the Democrat-controlled Assembly would take up the bill.

Meanwhile, the highest-profile issues languished.

Though rent control expired at midnight Monday and the session was supposed to end Wednesday, lawmakers still hadn't resolved how to renew it. Assemb. Keith Wright (D-Harlem) proposed punting the issue, introducing a bill to extend the current law until February. Assembly members called it a "last resort" if lawmakers couldn't resolve it this week.

Struggling to find a compromise, Cuomo and leaders discussed adding a hodgepodge of unrelated proposals to combine in a package with enough goodies for Democrats and Republicans to support, legislators said.

The potential mix included amendments to gun-control laws and teacher evaluations; more charter schools, more money for upstate schools and a tax deduction for donations to private schools; and property-tax adjustments to consider household incomes.

A series of meetings among Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) yielded little progress. Eventually, they acknowledged they would extend the session at least one day.

Flanagan has called for an eight-year extension of rent laws, but wants tenants to have to verify their incomes to qualify.

The Democrat-led Assembly opposes the idea as well as Cuomo's idea to link the renewal of rent control to an education tax credit to promote donations to private and parochial schools.

Lawmakers did begin plowing through hundreds of lower-profile but noteworthy bills as the session moved to a close.

For example, both houses approved a measure to limit property taxes on Nassau County homes damaged by superstorm Sandy. The measure authorizes local assessing units to limit any increase in property taxes on repaired homes, basing it on pre-storm values rather than current assessments, according to the sponsors, Sen. Michael Venditto (R-Massa-pequa) and Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach).

The bill wouldn't apply to property in Long Beach because the city already has mechanisms to address the issue, the legislators said.

It will be up to Cuomo to sign or veto the bill.

Some local bills were held in limbo. Lawmakers still hadn't approved a measure to renew Nassau's sales tax, worth more than $300 million in revenue annually. Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) wants the county to direct $3 million in sales tax revenue to the village of Hempstead and $2.5 million to the village of Freeport.

But there was plenty of action on the wood frog as official state amphibian. Democrats rebuked Republicans for bringing the bill to the floor for a vote while rent control lingered. Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse), who noted that schoolchildren in his district advocated for the designation, was incensed at the accusation.

"To compare this to rent control is complete nonsense," DeFrancisco said, adding, "This is important to me because it's important to those young children."

"This is an asinine bill," countered Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria). "We're sitting here discussing what should be the official state amphibian while two million people in New York City are not sure if they have a home."

Staying focused on the issue at hand, Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) said of the frog, before voting no: "They are very small and ugly."

With Michael Gormley

State & Region