National News

As End of Legislative Session Nears, Ennui Wins the Day

Posted June 19, 2018 9:13 p.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. — As lawmakers and lobbyists filed into the New York State Capitol on Tuesday, they steeled themselves for two possible crises: a continuing stalemate on the penultimate day of the year’s legislative session, and a rumored interruption of service at the ground-floor Dunkin’ Donuts.

The caffeine issue soon appeared resolved: Legislators clutched massive cups of coffee throughout the afternoon without incident. But the legislative stasis ground on, with leaders of both the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led Assembly adamantly refusing to grant any concessions to the other, and with rank-and-file members seemingly buckling in for a long night of nothing.

All told, the almost-coffee-crisis seemed poised to be the most climactic event of what lawmakers called the most uneventful end to the legislative session in years.

“There were fundamental issues where there was no compromise, and each side feels very confident in their position,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told reporters on Tuesday. “I never held out an expectation of a grand bargain here.”

There is little incentive or infrastructure for a legislative breakthrough. A 31-31 deadlock between Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate has virtually paralyzed the chamber for the past few weeks. Legislators are eager to avoid any controversy before this fall’s elections. And there are no outstanding issues that demand immediate resolution, unlike last year, when the expiration of mayoral control of New York City schools forced legislators into a special session.

The halls of the Capitol, usually abuzz with frenetic last-minute pitches from lobbyists and activists, were often quiet. The lobbies outside the Assembly and Senate chambers, on most days thronged with advocates, were frequently empty. Cuomo was not even in Albany on Monday to arm-wrestle legislators into a deal, though he returned to the capital on Tuesday.

Still, there were signs of preparations for a long — if unproductive — night. The Senate, announcing that it would reconvene after dinner for a late-night session, ordered in Italian food. In the Assembly, at least one legislator had hoarded for nourishment a plate of limp waffles draped in plastic wrap. A Senate security guard handed his colleagues paper cups of coffee and told an inquiring passer-by that he planned to be there until midnight.

But the stockpiling may have been dedicated more to running out the clock than to fueling hard-charging negotiations.

“It’s quiet,” said Sen. Michael N. Gianaris, D-Queens, “but we still have to sit here.”

That is not to say legislative progress was entirely absent. On Tuesday afternoon, the Assembly approved the creation of a commission to oversee possible prosecutorial misconduct. The Senate had passed the measure the week before, and criminal justice advocates applauded it as an important step to fight wrongful convictions.

But other criminal justice reforms, such as the elimination of cash bail, remained stalled, as did bills on other prominent outstanding issues including reproductive rights, gun control, teacher evaluations, government ethics and sports betting.

“No trades,” Carl E. Heastie, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, said of the Republicans’ attempts to tie the decoupling of teacher evaluations and standardized test scores to an increase in charter schools.

John J. Flanagan, the Republican Senate leader, has laid blame for the inactivity with Cuomo, who has said he did not expect any significant bills to be passed after the state’s $168 billion budget deal in March. “Gov. Cuomo has thrown in the towel,” Flanagan said in a statement in May. “That’s unfair to the hard-working people of this state, and I vehemently disagree with his posture.”

But Cuomo doubled down on that stance again on Tuesday, calling hopes for major legislation “wishful thinking.”

“Virtually everything we could get done, we got done in the budget,” he said.

Instead, both chambers passed a flurry of bills that Cuomo called “granular housekeeping,” focused either on the hyperlocal — such as where the part-time judge of the city court of Lackawanna is allowed to live, or the correct spelling of Staten Island’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge — or the hyperspecific, such as the qualifications for membership in the New York State Dental Association.

For much of the day, attention appeared focused on matters outside of the legislative session. Two prominent former state officials are standing trial in Manhattan for public corruption. Cuomo announced a lawsuit against the federal government for separating the children of unauthorized immigrants from their parents. Stephanie Miner, the former mayor of Syracuse, made her first appearance in the capital since announcing her bid for governor.

In a Capitol often notorious for inefficiency and intractability, even Cuomo seemed unfazed by the lack of progress. “You never know,” he said, “but it would defy what we’ve seen all year long if there was suddenly an about-face.”