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In Albany, Legislature moving to close session, with major deals dying

ALBANY – At a time when one of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature Buffalo Billion programs is the subject of a corruption trial, efforts to restore oversight of economic development spending were among a slew of statewide issues dying at the state Capitol as lawmakers limped along to end their 2018 session sometime Wednesday.

In place of the usual big-ticket items that define the end of a legislative session, lawmakers Tuesday continued pushing through dozens of locally-related and smaller items, including fixing a nearly 60-year-old typo in the name of a New York City bridge – honoring Giovanni da Verrazzano – with an extra Z to set things straight.

One measure advancing Tuesday was a crackdown on properties in Buffalo that have been cited for building code and other safety violations.

Nonresident owners who fail to maintain their properties – and then do not pay fines assessed by the city against them – will have the financial obligations turned into tax liens.

“We’re going after the slumlords who have taken advantage of our city,’’ said Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat and the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, said landlords are now able to ignore violations over everything from faulty fire alarms to leaky rooftops. The bill will permit the city to morph outstanding fines into tax liens that, if not paid, can lead to a property’s foreclosure.

The lawmaker said people have raised concerns about the measure possibly forcing some tenants out of their homes.

“It’s almost better to be homeless than to burn down in a building that’s not up to the right codes,’’ Peoples-Stokes said.

Session stumbling to close

There are two seasons in Albany: state budget adoption time in late March and end-of-session in June or so when hundreds of bills can be pushed through the two houses each day.

The June days are marked by heavy negotiations and horse-trading when issues of statewide importance are dealt with by governors and lawmakers, especially in years such as this when all of them are up for re-election this fall.

This session’s end is an aberration.

Cuomo turned up in Albany Tuesday for the first time since lawmakers turned up their end-of-session grind. By midafternoon, he was lowering expectations for anything major to be accomplished.

He said the sides “hit a roadblock” since the budget was put together in March, noting that the “fundamental differences” over a series of items will play themselves out before voters in campaigns between Democrats and Republicans this fall.

Cuomo said he has little hope any of his legislative wishes will be fulfilled, including a gun control measure in which teachers and others can report students who may be a risk to themselves or others, extending the statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases against child sexual predators and bringing an early-voting system to the state.

Given last-minute lobbying wins by some of the hundreds of lobbyists and clients camped out on the Capitol’s third floor, a host of measures appear destined for the legislative cemetery.

The dying measures include an effort to legalize sports gambling, at casinos, racetracks and OTB parlors as well as online on New Yorkers’ cellphones and computers.

The Supreme Court lifted a national ban on such gambling, but the measure has not gotten legs in Albany despite a lobbying push by pro sports leagues, casinos and global sports betting outlets.

One gambling bill advancing would bring new technology to bell jar games, a paper version of a slot machine popular in Western New York among veterans’ organizations.

The bill – to permit bell jar games to be played on slot-like electronic devices – has pitted some groups, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, against the Seneca Nation of Indians, whose officials have told lawmakers that the bill threatens a gambling exclusivity deal the tribe has with New York.

The unique ending to this year’s session has been brought about partly, lawmakers say, because Cuomo is distracted by challengers to his re-election campaign. The newest Cuomo challenger, former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat, met with reporters Tuesday one floor above Cuomo’s office.

Analysis: Ex-Syracuse mayor challenges Cuomo, citing Buffalo Billion trial

But the session’s conclusion has been made foggy by the 31-31 partisan split in the Senate, where Republicans who have dominated the chamber for more than 50 years suddenly were unable – with the departure of one from their ranks – to get any major bills through on their own.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said he has been talking with Senate leaders, but held out little hope for deals.

“At this point, we’re still open to having negotiations, but right now the priority is to get the local bills that are important to members,’’ Heastie said.

A measure to decouple teacher evaluations from student test score results has been stalled by the Senate GOP insisting on some kind of additional authorization for charter schools. That is a non-starter in the Assembly.

Heastie was anxious to tell people – publicly and privately – of his desire to end the session on time Wednesday.

“It is my expectation that we will leave with plenty of sunshine to go,’’ Heastie said in an interview. He did not specify which time zone he was referring to, but in Albany the sun is due to set Wednesday at 8:36 p.m.

Lawmakers were pushing to get a host of local bills through, including authorization of cameras to catch speeders in school zones in Buffalo.

The Assembly passed 132 bills Tuesday and into early Wednesday morning, including a measure to extend the ability for numerous localities to maintain local tax programs, such as hotel occupancy levies. But that key local bill does not have a companion piece in the Senate so the sides will have to work out a last-minute deal Wednesday in order to help keep many localities' budgets in balance for the coming year.

Volume may not be an indicator of a smooth democracy, but in Albany it can give a clue into partisan relations in a legislative chamber, such as the Senate where Republicans and Democrats have been engaged in on-again, off-again warring for weeks. In the Senate Tuesday, 176 separate bills were approved Tuesday for a total of 271 bills so far this week; that is on a slow pace compared, for instance, to last year's final week of session when the Senate okayed 607 bills.

Economic oversight

Declaring an issue dead can be dangerous in Albany, but some seemed easy to call. Government watchdogs for months have stepped up efforts to restore state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s oversight status over certain government contracts.

The Buffalo Billion corruption trial that started this week has been their chief evidence for additional oversight of mega-contracts that, in the case of the solar project at Buffalo’s RiverBend, totaled $750 million and is at the heart of an alleged big-rigging case by federal prosecutors.

The Senate has passed the measure, but it has stalled in the Assembly. On Tuesday, the bill’s sponsor – Peoples-Stokes – said she has little interest in moving the bill.

She said it could harm the state’s SUNY 2020 program that has led to big public dollar investments at state universities across New York.

Peoples-Stokes said the measure she sponsored “literally dismantles” the SUNY program. “There’s nothing wrong with oversight, except that it takes more time,’’ she said of preapproval processes that can stall development deals valuable to communities.

“It has as much negative as conceptual positive in my mind,’’ she said, of the oversight measure sought by DiNapoli.

The Legislature has now given final approval to the creation of an 11-member commission with powers to investigate and possibly recommend sanctions against prosecutors who may have committed official misconduct for actions that were, according to the text of the bill, “a departure from his or her obligations under appropriate statute, case law and/or New York Rules of Professional Conduct.”

A group representing district attorneys in counties across the state tried to block the measure. The bill now heads to Cuomo for his consideration.

An assortment of bills got final approval Tuesday, such as one to create a commission to study building a seawall around the New York City coastline. Others included ones to:

  • Permit the state to keep secret the names of lottery winners and not require winners to turn up at publicity events to announce their jackpots.
  • Designate “Here Rests in Honored Glory” as the official state hymn of remembrance in honor of veterans.
  • Grant Tier I pension status to Judge Thomas Amodeo, the chief Buffalo City Court judge.
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