National News

Even for Albany, an Unusually Unproductive End to Session

Posted June 21, 2018 7:48 p.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. — Those familiar with New York state politics know that unfulfilled policy wish lists are as much a staple of the end of the legislative session as unresolved partisan rancor and tearful farewell speeches.

But for even the most seasoned observers of Albany’s political machinations, the end of this year’s session late Wednesday night — or more accurately, early Thursday morning — was striking for the bills it left undone and for the immediate consequences it would leave in its wake.

Unlike the perennial inaction on grandiose promises of ethics reform or procurement oversight, the Legislature’s failure this year to approve even a collection of modest, apolitical proposals — namely, a reauthorization of speed safety cameras at New York City schools, and an extension of some local governments’ tax collection abilities — seemed to signal a new level of partisan intractability and to invite a special incredulity.

“There are always things that don’t get done,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group. “What made this session unique was the gridlock in the Senate, which made even the simplest of issues extremely difficult to resolve.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fervent proponent of the speed cameras, was far more acerbic in his recriminations.

“The failure to preserve and expand lifesaving speed cameras near New York City schools represents a massive failure of leadership,” he said in a statement. “Kids will be in danger. Kids will lose their lives.”

He called on the Legislature to reconvene for a special session and immediately reauthorize the program, which his office said has helped reduce traffic fatalities or serious injuries by more than 20 percent since its introduction in 2014.

Without further action, the cameras at 140 schools around the city will go dark in July.

But there is no guarantee that a special session would yield any new progress. The Senate, for years led by Republicans, has these past weeks been deadlocked in a 31-31 partisan tie after one Republican senator returned to active duty in the Navy, and a group of eight renegade Democrats who had helped empower the Republicans ended their collaboration.

That threw into disarray the balance of power through which Democrats and Republicans, by virtue of their respective controls of the Assembly and Senate, had long been forced to the bargaining table. With the stalemate in the Senate essentially stripping the Republicans of their leverage, the Assembly Democrats adopted a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

And Gov. Andrew Cuomo — usually a strong-arming presence during these last-minute negotiations — was largely absent. He did announce this week that he supported the speed cameras. But transit safety advocates suggested the governor had committed only in words.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Tom DeVito, the senior director of advocacy at Transportation Alternatives, a community group, said of the governor’s lobbying efforts. “Leaders — particularly leaders who say they support the program — need to be doing something.”

Cuomo said Thursday he “vehemently condemned” the Senate’s inaction and would continue to press for the bill’s passage.

“I will bring them back at any time, at a moment’s notice,” he said of the Legislature.

Legislators, for their part, laid blame at the opposing party’s feet. Sen. Jose R. Peralta, a Democrat from Queens, blasted his Republican colleagues on the Senate floor for choosing “politics over children’s lives,” and Sen. John J. Flanagan, the Republican leader, called Peralta’s remarks “hyperbole” and “out of order.” Flanagan noted that the Democrats had killed a separate bill to reduce the speed limit around school zones — the Democrats said they would not take any substitute for the cameras — and accused them of being the ones to politicize school safety.

“You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth,” Flanagan said.

By the time the legislative session ended shortly before 2 a.m. Thursday, the speed cameras measure had been tacked onto no fewer than three unrelated proposals, with Assembly Democrats holding the local tax extenders hostage until the cameras were reauthorized, and Republicans conditioning the reauthorization on the installation of armed guards at schools or an increase in the number of charter schools.

The now-abandoned extenders would have allowed the continuation of small but important fiscal measures, such as the City of New Rochelle’s occupancy tax or Cattaraugus County’s recording tax. Without them, local governments may need to re-evaluate their budgets.

“Nobody thought that they would adjourn without taking up these measures,” said Stephen J. Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. “People say that’s politics as usual. I say that’s baloney.”

Also left behind in the Capitol’s halls, alongside the empty sushi platters and ice cream cups that fueled legislators’ late-night inertia, were proposals to end cash bail, legalize sports betting, change admissions to the city’s specialized high schools, expand protections for victims of childhood sexual abuse and tighten gun regulations.

In their farewell speeches on the floors of the chamber — normally the venue for self-congratulation and (at least rhetorical) détentes — both Republican and Democratic Senate leaders offered muted endorsements of the previous six months’ accomplishments.

“Under these very difficult circumstances, we were able to do some of what people sent us here to do,” said Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the Senate Democrats. “Obviously there is unfinished business.”

Flanagan, of the Republicans, tried for a more upbeat conclusion.

“No one, even the most jaded amongst us, would have ever believed that we could have seen what we’ve seen,” he said. “But you know what? We got it done.

“Maybe not everything,” he continued. “But we got it done.”