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New York State Legislature has unfinished business

Senators work in the Senate Chamber at the

Senators work in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on June 17, 2015 in Albany. Credit: AP

See you later.

That, essentially, is the message from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo regarding the state legislative session that resumes this week.

Cuomo says he got every big initiative he wanted into the recently approved $153 billion budget, and will respond to whatever bills lawmakers move forward, but he’s not going to put up anything of his own. He says he’s more focused on his big building projects.

We support Cuomo making sure his ambitious remake of the state’s transportation infrastructure stays on schedule. And we understand the festering enmity between him and lawmakers, his effusive public praise last week of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan notwithstanding. We also know that such pronouncements often are negotiating ploys from a governor who plays that game as well as anyone, and who now is filtering his decisions through a 2020 prism.

But it would be a mistake to turn the next two months into an afterthought. Nor should the legislature follow suit. Sitting this one out would tell residents that things around the state are so good there’s nothing left to do, and we all know that’s not true.

Fortunately, lawmakers are brimming with ideas. Unfortunately, many have been proposed before and still have little chance of passing because one party controlling one chamber opposes them as strongly as the other party in the other chamber supports them.

For Assembly Democrats, it’s legislation on reproductive health rights, immigration reform and the Dream Act. For Senate Republicans, it’s reducing damages victims can receive through litigation, relaxing regulations and changing the “scaffold law” that protects construction workers functioning at elevated heights.

But there are some proposals for which common ground can be found, and others that are so important to New Yorkers that lawmakers need to put party differences aside. The legislature doesn’t need Cuomo to pass legislation, but it does need to practice the arts of negotiation and compromise.

That’s certainly true for voting reform. There is a crying need for it. New York continues to lag most of the country in voter turnout. Voting should start a few days before Election Day to give voters more flexibility to get to the polls. Registration, with eligibility verification, should be automatic during interactions with state agencies, and ballots should be printed in larger type. Anyone should be able to vote via absentee ballot if he or she chooses, and changing party registration should be allowed closer to elections. Last year’s presidential primaries, in which many New Yorkers found themselves unable to participate, were a fiasco.

Legislation to restore the comptroller’s authority to review state contracts before they’re awarded and shed more light on economic development projects is much needed, even without the prod of last year’s indictments of members of Cuomo’s inner circle and others in relation to upstate contracts.

A bill being drafted by Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) to protect from development 800 acres of Shoreham-Wading River forest proposed for a solar farm by adding it to the core pine barrens area should be approved.

Mayoral control of New York City schools must be extended — no one wants to revert to the old Board of Education system — but its fate likely will be tied to an initiative favored by Senate Republicans, whose battle with Mayor Bill de Blasio shows no signs of abating.

Other good ideas worth pursuing include establishing a sales tax on internet purchases, steps to increase the number of organ donors, requiring water-quality testing around mulching and compost facilities, and reforms to the Regional Economic Development Council competition, including requiring financial disclosures from those who dole out these funds.

One issue that apparently won’t be discussed, despite state residents consistently identifying it in polling as a high priority, is ethics reform; that’s to the discredit of everyone involved.

Lawmakers return to Albany on Monday and will begin firming up party agendas. New ideas will emerge as the clock ticks down to the session’s scheduled end on June 21, some becoming part of the final frenzied deal-making.

Legislators have complained about Cuomo’s penchant for putting policy proposals into the state budget to take advantage of the leverage that comes from its April 1 deadline. They’d rather handle such matters in the legislative process. They also are clamoring for a raise, to such a level that they’d have to become full-time lawmakers.

So, they have the next two months to make their case. Prove that the budget process is not the best instrument for forcing compromise. Show you have an agenda based on principles, not merely reflexive responses to special interests.

Produce legislation that moves New York State forward and makes it a better place to live, and that brings Cuomo back to the table.


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