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State's legislative year ends quietly, with not much accomplished

New York's 2012 legislative session coasted to a stop Thursday, and voters will hear a lot about it during this fall's legislative elections. Voters will hear how orderly it was and how it avoided long nights of tense, closed-door negotiations and messy floor debates of past years.

Legislators will point to the two-year session, noting several accomplishments, many of them fitting the Albany term of "half a loaf" for falling short of the hype. But several were truly landmarks, including the legalizing same-sex marriage, capping the growth in property taxes and the formation this year of a new agency to protect the disabled in state care.

Voters will hear that all were "historic" moments that eluded past administrations and legislatures.

The 2012 session continued the hype, while the substance faded.

After four years of gridlocking dysfunction involving most of the same people, lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have elevated the phrase "simple functioning" into high praise. And they regularly heap it on each other.

At a joint news conference Thursday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver called the session "a record of leadership and achievement unparalleled in recent memory."

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos called it "one of the most productive and orderly legislative sessions I've been part of," a span that covers more than 25 years.

And Cuomo tagged it "one of the most successful in modern political history," and "a magnificent accomplishment for the people of New York State" -- who, he advised, could be proud of "such a dramatic turnaround" for the "new New York."

Yet for New Yorkers, unemployment is still at 8.6 percent, and another deficit -- this one $3.4 billion -- is projected by the comptroller in the current state budget, while the state's economic recovery and rise in wages trail the national recovery.

In Cuomo's first year, Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats were more motivated than ever to overhaul their image as their stock plummeted and leadership became shaky. Cuomo gave them focus, and lawmakers hitched their wagon to him.

And it worked. Gay marriage, a tax cap and a rare cut in actual state spending in an austere state budget were among the changes Cuomo pushed. Polls showed New Yorkers were starting to see New York as being on the right track for the first time in a long time.

This year's public pension reform continued the record. But Cuomo said he had completed 90 percent of his legislative agenda and started trying to lower expectations. The result was that this year fewer bills were passed by both houses than since at least 1914, according to Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Big issues went untouched, including raising the minimum wage, tax breaks to spur job growth, campaign finance reform, microstamping gun identification, proposed natural gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing and Cuomo's own calls to fix the secretive ethics and lobbying board. Too messy. But they are more essential for New Yorkers than just about anything else taken up this year.

On Thursday, Skelos offered the line that Cuomo, Silver and much of the rank-and-file have used repeatedly, though it isn't true: The 2012-13 budget was adopted "without any new taxes or fees." The $2 billion tax increase adopted in December went a long way toward balancing the current budget.

Somehow that increase and the five annual increases adopted for public colleges disappeared, even though Cuomo and Skelos promised through the 2010 campaign and 11 months of 2011 that they were vehemently opposed to higher costs for New Yorkers.

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