New York State

Albany kicks off last week of session by phoning it in

The end of the New York state legislative session began not with a bang, but with a whimper.

New York State Capitol building

New York State Capitol building Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

The last week of the state legislative session began not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The stately chambers of the New York Capitol were relatively sedate on Monday, although the legislative session extended late into the night with nothing groundbreaking to show for it. Two weeks ago, the state Senate was in turmoil over failed hostile amendments introduced by the Democrats. One week ago, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan entered into a bitter war of words with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the governor’s proposed “red flag” gun control measure. But while the end of session is usually a bustling affair, all was quiet on the Albany front.

Indeed, the loudest sounds echoing through the Capitol were the gentle waiting music on the state Senate livestream and a passionate yet likely ineffectual rally from the Poor People’s Campaign, which aims to raise awareness of income inequality and racism, outside of the Senate chambers.

The state Legislature appears to be going through the motions before the end of the session, as many pressing issues have already been resolved. While today and tomorrow may be more contentious, Monday’s lack of drama highlights the state Legislature’s readiness to leave Albany and get down to the work of campaigning for reelection.

What happened in the state Senate

On Monday, at least, not too much. The Senate had a very light schedule, perhaps saving more controversial issues for later in the session, as a student might delay an unpleasant assignment. For much of the day, the Senate stood at ease, meaning that it was conducting business off the floor without adjourning – namely, that the Republican and then the Democratic conference were huddling to discuss strategy for the final days. When it was active on the floor, several non-controversial bills passed, such as naming a local bridge and allowing a tax exemption for a Chabad center in Nassau County.

When asked if the session was set to end on time on Monday, state Sen. Michael Gianaris, the Democratic caucus leader, said it might be ending in half an hour. (In fact, the session lasted for several more hours. But much of that was spent “at ease.”)

The question of changing teacher evaluations was not touched, even though it appears in a “big ugly”-esque composite bill sponsored by Flanagan, which also includes provisions on hot-ticket items like installing more speed cameras near schools and bail reform. Flanagan’s bill would decouple standardized examinations from teacher evaluations, but contains a poison pill for Democrats in the Assembly: increasing the number of charter schools in the state and easing oversight of yeshiva schools – a pet cause of Sen. Simcha Felder, the Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, giving them the majority. The faces a steep uphill battle in the Senate, and a sheer vertical ascent in the Assembly.

The Senate appears to have grown accustomed to the strange arrangement that leaves 31 Democrats and 31 Republicans, due to the absence one Republican and one Democrat who caucuses with the other party. Where just weeks ago Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was called in to preside over the session, invoking the ire of Republicans, neither she nor the governor were anywhere in sight on Monday.

Cuomo has steered clear of state Senate legislative negotiations, rather than getting involved in the fray, indicating that he is unlikely to expend his political capital to influence the outcome. Even though the governor was actively campaigning for his “red flag” bill around the state, Flanagan complains that Cuomo has not worked behind the scenes with Senate Republicans to negotiate a compromise bill on preventing gun violence.

The legislative logjam could be a function of the upcoming election. Cuomo and the Democrats may benefit more by campaigning on popular progressive proposals on issues such as gun control and enthusing their base to come out this fall. If they flip just one Senate seat, they will then have the power to pass more liberal legislation without appeasing Republicans at all. The GOP, meanwhile, may fear compromising with Democrats could dampen their own supporters’ enthusiasm.

What happened in the Assembly

Substantively, more than in the state Senate. The Assembly passed a raft of bills, mainly on relatively minor issues, such as allowing the sale of frozen desserts including alcohol, requiring a local Board of Elections to notify voters of a special election ten days beforehand, and making ATMs remove cards with chips before dispersing cash. The bill alcoholic ice cream bill has already passed the Senate, and the other two are under consideration in the upper chamber.

These votes kept the Assembly late into the night.

However, as in the upper chamber, many controversial issues were not addressed, namely sports betting. When asked whether sports betting, which had recently been legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo – who is close to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – shrugged and said “I haven’t heard anything.” This casual attitude towards a controversial issue may be a death knell for a cause supported prominent Republicans in the state Senate who wish to see it legalized. Without the backing of the Assembly Democrats, or an absentee Cuomo, sports betting is not likely to pass in the final two days of session.

Meanwhile, as the Buffalo Billions trial began in New York City, the outlook on a bill that would make government contracting more transparent was grim. Assemblyman Robin Schimminger said, “I know of nothing to breathe life into these bills, but it’s only Monday.”