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Budget deadline sparks flurry of bills in Albany

ALBANY – With its internal clock ticking toward the end of session, the State Legislature on Tuesday approved deals on everything from an effort to reduce incidents of campus sexual assaults to designating as an official New York crop “actively managed log-grown mushrooms.’’

But major items – affecting property taxpayers, religious schools, teen criminals and New York City apartment dwellers – were still subject to furious backroom negotiating as lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sought to put an end to a session that will be remembered more for who was arrested than what was accomplished.

It was also a day when items that appear dead, such as a plan to give Mayor Byron W. Brown control over Buffalo’s school system, were still hanging on in the final hours of the session. Brown released a letter he wrote to Cuomo last week urging him to get behind the effort to dissolve the current School Board and let the mayor pick new leaders of the system.

Movement was underway on efforts to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public places and to set aside future funding for transit agencies.

The list of bills given final approval Tuesday, or announced as deals to be passed this week, ran the gamut: from renaming a highway, expanding big-game hunting with rifles in several upstate counties and – a sure sign to the end of session – letting some constituents into more lucrative pension tier levels.

The campus sexual assault deal announced Tuesday comes after a policy was enacted at state university campuses earlier this year. The now-statewide bill affecting all public and private campuses requires adoption of a code of conduct that includes the following language: “Affirmative consent is a knowing, voluntary and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent.”

The new policy also will provide amnesty to students who provide information about sexual assaults against students but who themselves might be targets of campus sanctions if, for instance, they were at an underage drinking party.

The legislation also includes requirements that private colleges now submit annual reports with data about incidents of sexual violence on their campuses and the creation of a new State Police unit to provide assistance to campus police in sexual violence cases. First responders also will be required to inform victims of their right to contact law enforcement.

Cuomo said the deal “is a major step forward to protect students from an issue that has been plaguing schools nationwide for far too long.”

Laura Anglin, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, said the new legislation is sharply different than one adopted by SUNY earlier this year. She noted the language, such as involving affirmative consent, is “clear, concise and something that we can administer.’’ Descriptions such as “victim” are replaced with “reporting individual’’ to take into account that not all accusations are proven true. Anglin said allegations of a sexual crime often involve two students on the same campus. “We have a responsibility to both those students. The bill is more balanced and neutral,” she said.

The final agreement “was really made to be something that will work for any college or university while making sure that the tools are there to help implement it,” she said.

The proposal for mayoral control of the Buffalo school system appears stalled. However, bills that appear dead one day are suddenly resurrected into what Capitol insiders call the “Big Ugly” bill, which can contain dozens of unrelated policy and fiscal matters.

The proposal calls for dissolving the current School Board and replacing it with a panel appointed by Brown; he also would handpick a superintendent. The plan has been roundly criticized as an end-run around the current system in which voters select the board.

The most outspoken advocate has been Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat whose bill does not have the support of a number of majority party members in both the Assembly and Senate, including some of her fellow Buffalo lawmakers.

Peoples-Stokes declined to call the proposal dead. “I think anything is possible in Albany,” she said.

Though Brown has not taken much of a visible role in promoting the bill, Peoples-Stokes said he has been actively lobbying Cuomo’s office for help with the idea. “I think (the Cuomo administration) should consider his opinion here,” the lawmaker said.

In his June 10 letter to Cuomo, the mayor said the Buffalo school district has failed to make “substantive progress on behalf of 34,000 children.” Staff morale is down, graduation rates still lag and schools are failing, Brown wrote.

“I am asking for your support to ensure that every child in the (Buffalo school system) receives a quality education,” Brown wrote.

The mayor was not in Albany on Tuesday, though his nomination by Cuomo to the State University of New York board of trustees was approved by the Senate.

In a Senate higher-education committee meeting, Sen. Liz Kruger, a Manhattan Democrat, said she sought and received assurances that Brown will recuse himself from SUNY board votes on matters that might in any way involve the city’s interests, which could be considerable given the size of state university assets in Buffalo.

The end-of-session sprint includes talks to extend current law that gives the New York City mayor control over the city’s schools. Tuesday’s activity at the Capitol focused heavily on efforts to continue New York City’s rent-control laws, along with efforts to extend the state’s property tax cap program, which is set to expire next year.

Still on the table is a push by Cuomo and Senate Republicans to give tax breaks especially benefiting private and religious schools; that has been a particularly divisive battle, with daily calls and mailings, including by Catholic Church leaders, to constituents of Assembly Democrats opposed to the plan. While Assembly Democrats say that campaign has backfired, there was talk Tuesday of some compromise plans that could end up benefiting the private schools with a state taxpayer-funded tax credit program.