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Legislature plugs away, but deals fall apart

The legislative session rides for another day.

Deals collapsed -- left and right -- late Thursday. Legislators failed to reach final consensus to control property tax increases, boost state university tuition and control New York City rent hikes. All are must-do items before the most contentious issue -- whether to legalize gay marriages -- will be taken up.

After Senate Republican leaders led rank-and-file senators and advocates on both sides of the gay marriage debate to believe that a showdown vote would happen well after midnight, the Senate adjourned unexpectedly, without taking up any of the major items.

Of concern: the so-called "Tully Effect" -- named for a Long Island senator, Michael Tully, who died in 1997 after a late-night session. Also, several senators said that there were growing fears about safety as protesters filled the halls and gallery overlooking the Senate chamber. Security tightened, sources said, as worries mounted over the possible reaction of the losing side in a gay marriage vote.

Senate Republicans had prepared to privately discuss the fate of the gay marriage bill. For the last two weeks, they have been trying to run out the clock before deciding if and when to bring the issue to a vote or to kill it behind closed doors.

Lawmakers were predicting that it would pass if it made it to the floor of the Senate; the bill already has been approved in the Assembly.

One plan called for a vote to occur long after late-night newscasts ended and newspaper deadlines had passed as a way to ensure that the controversial legislation -- which most Republicans in the GOP-led Senate oppose -- would not receive widespread public attention immediately.

"I'll leave it to the Senate to decide how to do it," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said of a bill he has been strongly pushing for weeks. Among fence-sitting Republicans getting one last private meeting with Cuomo on Thursday was Buffalo Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, who has been undecided on the bill for the last couple of weeks and remained that way Thursday.

Grisanti was not alone playing coy. "I'm working on it. I'll get there soon," Sen. Stephen M. Saland, a Dutchess County Republican, said of the bill.

Asked if any new senators had suggested to him Thursday that they would vote to approve the bill, Cuomo said: "I'm cautiously optimistic. Let me just say that. I don't want to get into private conversations that I've had."

The dispute even caught the eye of President Obama, who in a speech for a gay rights group in Manhattan on Thursday night noted the "debate" raging 150 miles north in Albany over whether to legalize gay marriage.

"New York is doing exactly what democracy is supposed to do," Obama said before Senate Republicans held what was to be their private meeting to decide the bill's fate.

Still on the table were adding amendments to allay concerns that religious organizations could face legal or regulatory problems for not letting, for example, same-sex couples marry or hold ceremonies in their facilities.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, a supporter of gay marriage, said Assembly Democrats were open to amending the bill to further protect religious organizations. When a reporter noted that the original bill already included certain religious protections, Silver said, "Correct. It reinforces it a little better." He declined to elaborate.

Snags throughout the day kept lawmakers from passing the final major bills of a 2011 session that was, according to their calendar, supposed to end four days ago.

The parameters of several deals already had been established: a cap of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower, on annual property tax levies and a 30 percent increase in state tuition levels over the next five years.

But negotiators opened and closed the agreements all day, with complications over a sunset provision -- apparently still five years -- for the property tax cap and whether to insert additional provisions to ensure that the University at Buffalo can proceed with its downtown Buffalo medical school construction plan.

After two weeks of start-and-stop deal-making and intense lobbying in the waning days of session, parts of the State Capitol were looking like a political war zone -- complete with bands of troopers keeping an eye on gay marriage demonstrators shouting at each other outside the Senate chamber, empty pizza boxes and hallways that smelled like a high school locker room after days of heat, humidity and masses of human beings.

Local governments and unions, such as New York State United Teachers, worked lawmakers one last time to try to undo provisions of the property tax cap; they say a cap will lead to widespread local government service cutbacks in the coming years. The cap includes some wiggle room, including permitting a certain level of employer-paid pension costs to be excluded from the cap. The ceiling is on a locality's overall tax levy, not an individual property owner's tax bill. If more than 60 percent of voters approve, a cap can be exceeded.

Language had still not emerged Thursday night on a state university tuition bill and whether there will be specific language to permit UB's medical school move. But Cuomo said the specific provisions are not needed because UB's plans are already part of an overall $140 million plan he has already unveiled for UB and the other three SUNY campus centers. Several Republican senators from Western New York spent part of the night huddled with university officials, representatives of local construction unions and others with a stake in the downtown construction plan.

Tuition for all four-year SUNY schools will rise by $300 per year from the present $4,950 per year to $6,470 in the fifth year of the plan. UB also can charge an additional fee of $75 per student, and out-of-state students will be faced with a rise of 10 percent per year.

Intrigue over the bill on gay marriage was producing all sorts of twists. One Republican worried that if the bill wasn't brought to the floor, Cuomo would call the Senate into special session to try to force a vote; legally, the Senate then could just gavel in and out of session without taking up the issue.

"I'm not going to work under time constraints. We're going to do it when the conference is ready," said Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre.

Also, the Assembly approved legislation to make New York compliant with the initial stages of the federal law to make it less expensive for individuals and small businesses to obtain health insurance. The Affordable Health Care Act requires all states to come up with "exchanges" to oversee the individual programs in each state. The Senate had yet to act.

The initial step by New York keeps the state in line for federal funding under the law by creating a public benefit corporation to run the health insurance exchange to try to reduce the ranks of the state's 2.7 million uninsured residents.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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