National News

Legislative Session in Albany Sputters to the Finish Line

Posted June 21, 2018 12:24 a.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. — An ambivalent governor. A divided Senate. A defiant Assembly.

Add it up, and the stage was set for a meek and unmemorable end of the state’s annual legislative session Wednesday, as 213 state lawmakers scurried to finish their required time in the Capitol and head for the hustings, where a restive and riled up electorate likely waits in November.

Without significant deadlines pressing the Legislature into action — unlike in March, when lawmakers risk going unpaid if they miss the state budget due date — numerous bills and potential policies seemed destined to quietly fall by the wayside, even as legislators worked well past sunset on the last scheduled day of session.

Sports betting was a no-go; so were increased gun-control measures. Reform on cash bail, government ethics and contract procurement faded once again into advocates’ pipe dreams. Educational proposals to decouple teacher evaluations from test scores were withering, as was a reauthorization of speed cameras around schools.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat facing a phalanx of challengers in the fall, did not appear in public or the state Capitol, instead conducting a series of television interviews on a hot-button issue of only tangential connection to the actual running of the state: the ongoing outcry about the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border, which lies approximately 1,700 miles to the southwest of New York.

The governor’s seeming lack of engagement wasn’t surprising: He had essentially declared the session over weeks ago, noting a stalemate in the Senate, where an absent Republican senator, Tom Croci, has resulted in a 31-31 split between Democrats and Republicans in the 63-seat chamber. (The 31 Republican votes also include that of a rogue Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who sits as part of the Republican conference.)

The resulting parity between the parties meant neither could pass anything in the Senate unilaterally, rendering the Republicans weaker than years past, when they were able to wring concessions out of the Democrat-dominated Assembly by dint of their majority. (In Albany, big decisions are typically decided by the so-called “three men in a room”: the governor, the leader of the Senate and the speaker of the Assembly.)

During the last seven sessions, the Republicans had even more leverage because of a group of renegade Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference, who collaborated with the Republicans in exchange for consideration of their bills, committee chairmanships, and other perks. In April, however, the eight members of the IDC folded themselves back into the larger group of 23 mainstream Democrats, leaving the Republicans with only a slim one-seat majority. Then Croci left, choosing to return to the Navy in May, although Republicans said he might be available for votes in Albany if necessary.

He never showed up.

“I haven’t seen him about in five weeks,” said John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican who is retiring this year.

Perhaps the most pressing business was a host of extensions that allow towns and cities across the state to collect taxes on everything from hotel rooms in New Rochelle to mortgage loans in the Adirondacks. The Assembly had already passed a collection of such extenders Wednesday morning, but the Senate, without Croci, failed even to pass six minor ones later in the afternoon, as Democrats refused to cooperate and accused the Republicans of playing “a dangerous game of political theater.”

Moments after the extenders failed, the Senate Republican leader, John Flanagan, called his colleagues back into a conference. There was little other action on the Senate floor as the hours passed, even as the Assembly chugged along with various minor bills and a vague sense of c’est la vie.

“We are very comfortable with our positions on the issues,” said Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assemblyman Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, who serves as the speaker.

On Wednesday, Cuomo reiterated that he and the Legislature had “got a lot done” during the budget talks in March, mentioning new sexual harassment rules, among others.

“The items we couldn’t get resolved, we still can’t get resolved, because there are philosophical differences,” Cuomo said in an interview on NY1, adding it was “going up to the people to decide in November.”

In the meantime, as legislative leaders wrangled over the unrelenting stalemate in private, rank-and-file lawmakers turned their attention to how best to pass the time. Some, about to retire, delivered tearful goodbye speeches on the floors of their chamber. Others paced the halls of the Capitol, mindful of their step count for the day.

Nily Rozic, an assemblywoman from Queens, asked the Capitol librarian for a comprehensive list of all the faces carved in stone around the building. There are 77, including that of Elmina Keeler Spencer, a Civil War nurse whose hoop skirts deflected an incoming bullet, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, although his last name is misspelled.

But such diversions could only last so long. As dusk settled, one lawmaker apologized to a group of court nominees who had waited all day to have their confirmations voted on.

“Whenever you have the last day of session,” said Sen. John Bonacic, a Hudson Valley Republican who is also retiring, “things get complicated.”