How Did New York's Legislative Session Wrap Up?

06.23.14 | Sarah Harnisch

The state’s legislative session included a fourth on-time budget in a row in March and ended with deals to limit teacher evaluations, legalize medical marijuana and toughen anti-heroin laws.

The Legislature finished its six-month session Friday, but many issues were left unresolved – and they’ll be top campaign issues this fall.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recognized Friday that some issues with political ramifications were too difficult to resolve in an election year – when all statewide seats and all 213 legislative seats will be on the November ballot.

“It’s no surprise that they weren’t done because they are fundamental political differences,” Cuomo said on “The Capitol Pressroom,” a public radio show.

Chief among them are bills that would enact a public financing system for political campaigns, a 10-point women’s equality agenda and allowing immigrants in the country illegally to receive tuition help.

Republicans, and even some Democrats, opposed some of the measures, despite Cuomo’s pledge to the Working Families Party that the issues would top his agenda.

Cuomo won the union-backed party’s nomination May 31 by saying he would work to help Democrats win the Senate majority. It’s now controlled by Republicans and a five-member Independent Democratic Conference.

Cuomo said it was a failure of the Senate for not getting those progressive items adopted.

“I said if they weren’t done, I would view it as a failure and it would be a case that I would bring to the people of the state after the session,” Cuomo said. “And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

But Cuomo at the same time praised what was accomplished.

The Democratic governor hailed getting a medical marijuana bill approved that will not allowed it to be smoked, but allows oils and other methods to get to patients. The program should be up and running within 18 months, making New York the 23rd state to allow some form of medical marijuana.

The deal was complex. Cuomo opposed letting medical marijuana to be smoked, fearing it would be abused, even though advocates pressed for the smoking piece. The compromise wasn’t reached until Thursday.

A package of 11 bills to toughen heroin laws and allow better treatment for patients wasn’t passed until Thursday, as well, as some Democrats questioned increasing criminal penalties. A deal to blunt the impact of Common Core testing standards on teacher evaluations for two years also wasn’t reached until Thursday -- a major reform wanted by the powerful teachers’ union.

“We got really amazing work that will make this state a better state, and we got it done under very difficult circumstances,” Cuomo said. “It’s a political year; there’s a lot of cross current.”

The Legislature extended the state’s brownfield tax credit program for 15 months, though reforms to the program that provides incentives to clean up former industrial sites couldn’t be reached in the legislative session’s final days.

Sen. George Latimer, D-Rye, Westchester County, suggested lawmakers were “punting” on the issue by extending the program instead of reforming it. But Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, said it was more of a field goal, saying the extension would make “hundreds of cleanups possible across the state.”

Democrats will seek to make the inability to get more liberal policies adopted at the Capitol a top campaign issue. Democrats have argued that if they were in control of the Senate, a law that would strengthen abortion rights, public financing and a higher minimum wage would all be on the books.

“I think we accomplished a lot,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said. “Obviously there are things that we would have liked to have done that we couldn’t get done, but eventually I think we are going to get them done.”

The five-member IDC is already facing primary threats. Its leader, Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, who covers parts of lower Westchester County, is in an primary against former New York City councilman Oliver Koppell.

Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Rockland County, faces a potential primary from Clarkstown town board member Stephanie Hausner.

“It has been clear for some time that rank-and-file Democrats, along with party activists, have been outraged by David Carlucci’s decision to empower the Albany Republicans,” Theodore Collins, executive director of the Rockland County Democratic Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

Carlucci has brushed aside the primary threat.

The Senate and Assembly couldn't reach accord on 10-point Women's Equality Act, which included a provision opposed by the GOP that would strengthen the state's abortion law.

The 63-seat Senate voted in favor of the provisions not related to abortion, including tougher penalties for sex traffickers. The Democrat-led Assembly, however, declined to split the bill up, arguing that it should be taken up as a single piece of legislation.

Carlucci said he would have liked to see the Senate and Assembly reach common ground. Now none of the bills will become law.

"I think it's really too bad," Carlucci said. "I wanted to see all 10 points passed. At the same time, I would have rather seen some of it passed than nothing."?

Republicans will be looking to win their first statewide office since 2002. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, mocked the session. He said maybe the best thing was a bill to stop the eradication of mute swans – far from the economic lift the state needs.

He said New York ranks among the worst in the nation for its business climate, and local governments are struggling under state mandates.

“And so another legislative session in Albany is ending, without a thing being done to turn this state around,” Astorino said in a video. “For struggling New Yorkers there was nothing. Zero. Zilch.”

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, left Albany praising their bi-partisan relationship with Democrats and Cuomo. Two bond rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, upgraded the state in the past week.

“I know working with my co-leader, working with the speaker, and certainly under the governor's leadership, we are moving the state in the right direction,” Republican Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, said in statement June 16 after Moody’s gave the state its highest rating in 50 years.

Republicans will be looking to gain seats in November, even as Cuomo and Democrats look to topple them. Democrats hold a large majority in the Assembly that won’t be threatened in November.

There are some key Senate races this fall. Freshman Sen. Ted O’Brien, D-Irondequoit, Monroe County, faces a challenge from former TV anchor Richard Funke, a Republican.

Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, Putnam County, is leaving office at year’s end, putting his Hudson Valley seat up for grabs. Another freshman Democrat, Sen. Terry Gipson, D-Rhinebeck, Dutchess County, is being challenged by GOP county legislator Sue Serino in a seat that had long been held by Republicans.

Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, Niagara County, said he believe the session as a whole was "fairly positive."

"First of all, you had the fourth on-time budget, which is a good thing," Maziarz said. "We had an increase in school aid over what the governor recommended, which is a positive thing. There are always different bills you would have liked, particularly local bills, but I think all in all it was positive."