New York State

Session wraps up after standoff over speed camera reauthorization

New York's legislative session wrapped up with few surprises, but plenty of frozen desserts.

New York Senate

New York Senate Mike Groll

The legislative session wrapped up early Thursday with little controversy, with Assembly members and senators passing necessary but mainly non-controversial bills in order to leave in a timely fashion. There is one action, however, that many New York City residents and elected officials would deem necessary, but the Republican-controlled state Senate refused to take: renewing the traffic camera program. Controversy over speed cameras, and the Republicans’ lack of leverage, led to a brief early-morning standoff between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

Even in a relatively sleepy week, that wasn’t all of the last-minute drama.

One of the bigger issues of the day revolved around tax extenders, which allow local municipalities and counties to continue charging sales and other taxes. A Republican bill in the state Senate that would have extended local taxes for several cities and counties around the state failed with 31 votes, just one shy of the majority needed to pass. Democrats opposed the bill, arguing that it did not include all of the necessary extenders. By refusing to let this bill pass, Senate Democrats tried to force Republicans to consider an Assembly version of the bill, which had linked local tax extenders to an expansion of speed cameras in New York City.

The Republicans instead decided to go a different route, and the Senate passed a series of tax extender bills for different localities, which were also approved in the Assembly, individually, with no consensus on speed cameras.

The Assembly also approved a bill decoupling teacher evaluations from standardized examinations last month. Legislation sponsored by state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan that would have tied teacher evaluations to increasing the number of charter schools passed on Wednesday – with four Democratic votes – but Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie refused to consider this legislation.

Unlike the Senate, which took a break to order dinner, the Assembly did not order food for the night and just worked on empty stomachs. However, the Assembly did get ice cream around 7 p.m., perhaps a consolation prize for the lack of dinner and a signal that the session was nearing a close. Not to be left out, the Senate had lemon ice delivered shortly before 10 p.m.

The Assembly wrapped up its session shortly after a meeting of the Democratic conference, passing a few minor bills without a compromise with the Senate on speed camera legislation or on teacher evaluations, meaning teacher evaluations would be tied to standardized tests in 2019 and speed cameras would be deactivated in July.

“I don’t think we got to accomplish as much as we wanted to because the Senate was at a standstill,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou. “On the Assembly side, we definitely showed who we are as a conference, and there a lot of bills that we’re proud of.”

Meanwhile, the Senate continued into the wee hours of Thursday morning, with Democrats calling the bluff of Republicans who lacked the votes to pass their remaining priorities.

Shortly after midnight, Democrats in the state Senate criticized Republicans for not finding a compromise on speed cameras. Democratic Sen. Jose Peralta argued that a bill proposed by Republican Sen. Marty Golden, a one-house bill which would require signs demarcating school zones and informing motorists of speed limits, was not enough.

"We could've done something today. We could've passed something and we didn't. We chose politics over people's lives,” Peralta said.

However, Republicans argued that it was the Democrats that had not done enough on safety. Sen. Andrew Lanza mentioned a bill that had passed the Senate to add stop signs to school zones that failed to become law this year.

“Some would say that we’re putting politics above safety, I would say that others are putting money above the lives of children,” Lanza said.

Golden’s bill ultimately failed, making it the third bill to fail this year. The fourth bill to fail, another one-house bill, involved employment rights for workers losing their jobs in an upstate coal generation facility. These one-house bills would generally have been used as election-year posturing, to show constituents that Republicans in the Senate passed important bills, which the Assembly then did not pick up. However, this year, Republicans lacked the votes necessary to muscle these bills through.

As the Democrats lacked incentive to work with Republicans, they torpedoed the bills, causing Republicans to enter conference shortly after midnight. Accepting that they did not have the votes to pass their priorities, the Republicans returned shortly after 1 a.m. and the session resumed with passing more non-controversial bills. A bill supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which will build an AirTrain at LaGuardia Airport, passed, after the Assembly approved it last week. The session closed at around 2 a.m.

Although there were a raft of issues that weren’t addressed, several bills did make it through the Assembly and Senate, particularly on local issues such as tax extensions and naming of local landmarks. Other broader topics included a bill that addressed tickets being sold on the secondary market for sports and entertainment events, a bill that allowed electronic bell jar games to be used by charitable organizations, and the confirmation of several nominees to the Court of Claims and interim Supreme Court judges.

The next session, after the elections, may turn out to be very different.