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Legislative session included many gains clouded by some significant failures

The just-completed session of the New York State Legislature was in equal parts productive and squandered. It offered valuable benefits to New Yorkers, especially those upstate, but those gains were accompanied by the failure to deal with problems that undermine the economy, the very concept of justice and even lives.

Chief among the pluses of the session that ended June 21 were passage of the NY SAFE Act to regulate firearms and of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s tax-free economic development plan, renamed Start Up NY.

The gun control law was hastily passed by the Legislature in January in response to the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn. While Cuomo’s standing in the polls took a beating after he signed the law, it was a sensible response to a problem that Washington refuses to confront. The Second Amendment restricts what can and should be done, but it doesn’t render Americans helpless to respond to increasing carnage.

Start Up NY will allow new businesses that locate on vacant public or private college land – or adjacent to it – to be exempt from paying state taxes for 10 years. His original proposal would also have made employees of those companies exempt from state income taxes, but the final bill offers that benefit to no more than 10,000 employees statewide.

The program aims to counter New York’s high-tax reputation – a reputation driven by reality – by matching new or expanding businesses with colleges whose programs jibe with the company’s business. In that, it hopes not only to bolster the economy upstate, where most SUNY campuses are located, but also to keep a greater share of graduates who now have to leave the state to find jobs.

A good program for the economy.

At the same time, though, Albany once again failed to come to grips with the legal abomination known as the Scaffold Law. For no reason other than to curry favor with special interests, it prohibits contractors from mounting a defense when a worker is injured in a fall.

Defenders of the law disingenuously pitch it as a protection for workers, but it isn’t. New York is the only state with such a law remaining on the books, and its safety record is comparable to that of similar states. What is more, injured workers would still have full access to the courts without this law, but because it presumes fault on the part of contractors – who may or may not have played a role in the injury – insurance rates and, thus, construction costs are significantly higher in New York. That not only hurts the economy, but when a defendant is not allowed to defend himself, it mauls any recognizable conception of justice, which is supposed to be a weighing of the scales. There’s no weighing under this misbegotten law. If justice prevails, it’s a lucky accident.

The session also saw passage of an on-time budget that once again kept New York State taxes and spending in check. For Buffalo, it included the rehabilitation project for Ralph Wilson Stadium and a new slug of the Buffalo Billion promised by Cuomo and approved by the Legislature. The budget does have its weaknesses, including an increase in the minimum wage funded in part by taxpayers, but it was by and large a good document, especially as compared to those produced by previous governors and legislatures.

The session failed, miserably, on matters of equality and criminal justice. It couldn’t pass Cuomo’s 10-point plan for women’s equality, after lawmakers hung up on its effort to codify existing abortion laws. In that, it left unreformed laws dealing with orders of protection that often deal in matters of life and death. It also failed to provide for pay equality, to strengthen laws against sexual harassment in the workplace and other matters.

Lawmakers also failed again to confront the state’s problem with wrongful convictions. They came close to an agreement, but didn’t get it done. Thus, nothing has changed in a state with one of the nation’s worst records for convicting people who are innocent of the crimes with which they have been charged.

Lawmakers should return to Albany this year to resolve both these issues. Cuomo has agreed to strip away the abortion component of his legislation on women’s equality, which is wise, given that abortion rights are – for the moment, at least – secure.

If they come back to pass the other nine measures in that package, they should also approve laws that will diminish the chances of wrongful conviction. They include reforms to lineup procedures to guard against witness misidentification, and a requirement to record police interrogations to protect against false confessions.

Much of Cuomo’s own agenda went unrealized in this session. In addition to the women’s equality measures, he failed to get the Legislature to agree on ethics reform, campaign finance reform, decriminalizing marijuana possession and improving the state’s congested and aging power transmission system.

Still, all sessions result in wins and losses. In this one, there were enough wins to count it as a qualified success. If only the losses weren’t so profound.