Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators accomplished a number of worthwhile goals in the state legislative session that wrapped up late last week, but on the most important issues – ethics – they scored an incomplete. Again.
It’s hardly a surprise – that’s how the Legislature has operated for years: Bow to public demands for reform by doing the least amount possible, then brag about a job well done. It wasn’t well done, because too many important changes were ignored. But there is also this: Its preliminary agreement on a pension forfeiture amendment.
That measure calls for the forfeiture of the pension of any lawmakers convicted of corruption. Because it is an amendment to the New York State Constitution, it will require passage by a separately elected Legislature, then approval by voters.
The Legislature also passed a measure to limit independent – so-called, anyway – campaign finance committees.
While much more could – and should – have been done regarding ethics, on other matters, Albany did well. As a matter of special interest in Western New York, but elsewhere as well, the Legislature agreed on a measure to combat the problem of “zombie homes.”
Zombie homes are those that the homeowner has abandoned but that have not been foreclosed upon, sometimes because of delays, sometimes because banks are seeking to avoid maintenance costs. The consequences of that, too often, are measured in deteriorating properties that undermine their neighborhoods and diminish area property values.
The legislation would create a state registry of these homes, require banks to maintain them and establish a toll-free line for public complaints. It’s an important effort that will mainly affect national banks, since local ones in Western New York tend to be more responsible about this issue. Cuomo should sign the bill.
The Legislature also, at the last minute, agreed on a bill for lead testing in the state’s schools. Backers anticipate that schools will be reimbursed for most of any costs of remediation that may be necessary. Given the catastrophic consequences of lead poisoning on children, though, this measure is important and necessary.
The Legislature also moved to legalize fantasy sports in New York, several months after Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman found them to be operating illegally in the state. Allowing another way to lose money is not an ideal situation – gambling relies too much on human weakness – but Albany has already opened the barn door on gambling – Exhibit No. 1 is its rush to create state-run casinos – so this was probably inevitable.
So is the eventual approval of ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. The app-based ride-hailing services represent a direct challenge to the taxi industry, but they are in keeping with the changes that the internet is forcing on many sectors of the economy. A bid to allow the services to operate upstate and on Long Island – it is already legal in New York City – failed in the Legislature over demands for higher liability coverage.
But the economy is changing and it is vain to pretend otherwise. New York can only hold these services at bay for so long. We presume their backers will return to fight another day.
The Legislature did allow Buffalo to set up a residential parking permit system in the Fruit Belt, where residents compete for curb space with workers at the nearby Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
Other welcome measures approved by the Legislature include increased availability for breast cancer screening and insurance coverage for mammograms, expanded treatment to deal with a heroin and opioid addiction crisis hitting many communities and a measure allowing for earlier alcohol sales by restaurants on Sundays. If there is a problem with that effort, known as the “brunch bill,” it is that the state’s entire approach to alcohol sales needs to be updated. But this was a reasonable measure.
Still, it was the problem of ethics – or the lack of them – that hung over this legislative session, marked by the prison sentences meted out to former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
And on that, legislators barely tried.