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Legislature closed curtain on ho-hum 2018 session

ALBANY – When the Legislature’s 2018 session began in January, the Republicans were in firm control of the Senate. No more.

Eric Schneiderman, now with the word “disgraced” in front of his name when stories are written about him, was the hard-charging state attorney general.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had no firm candidates opposing him for re-election; that’s changed with challengers from in and outside his party.

And longtime Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were dreaming – wrongly – of acquittals in their separate corruption cases.

On Wednesday, lawmakers worked into the night to end an already weary political year that has not yet even seen the real start of re-election campaigns for Senate and Assembly races. Assembly members left Albany shortly before midnight; the Senate wrapped things up two hours later.

Yet, if the political trappings around Albany were action-filled, the actual legislative session seen in Albany since session started on Jan. 3 can best be marked by one description: Ho-hum.

“I would not call it a productive session by any means," said Assemblyman Ray Walter, an Amherst Republican.

“It was not a bold session. I’m not sure when we look back we’re going to say, ‘Look at all the exciting things Albany has done for the people of New York,’ " said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.

On any host of matters, issues were punted til another day, or year with lawmakers not set to return to Albany until January. What was dramatic at the year’s start – a $4.4 billion deficit – by springtime seemed to vanish with little pain or effort.

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Lawmakers in both houses for days have been saying major statewide issues were not going to get addressed. They blamed Cuomo for having a focus they say stretched beyond Albany; indeed, the governor did spend the day at the Capitol, but focused considerable energies on a series of live tv interviews that he used to condemn the federal government's family separation immigration. And they blamed the Senate, where shifting alliances and the sudden departure by one lawmaker back to the Navy, left a chamber with 31 members apiece in the two party conferences – and dysfunctional on all but the easiest of tasks.

The drama on Wednesday was hostage-taking by the two houses of measures to permit localities across New York to continue with existing local tax and bonding programs. It ended with the usual blinks by negotiators, averting financial trouble for many of the localities.

The Senate began its day by congratulating a high school softball team, renaming a road in Sullivan County as “The Woodstock Way" after the nearby concert held nearly 49 years ago, and giving final passage to a measure permitting state lawmakers – so long as they don’t charge a fee – to preside over marriage ceremonies.

The day also saw perhaps the last closed-door leaders meeting between Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican. Democrats believe this is the year they will take over control of the Senate and Cuomo and Flanagan have been publicly sniping at each other for weeks.

Asked how his conversation with Cuomo went, considering the obvious bad feelings that have spilled out in public between the two men, Flanagan dismissed the premise. “Bad feelings? There are no bad feelings. We have tough words back and forth but we’re staking out positions and we’re here because we want to try to get things done," he said outside Cuomo’s office as he left the brief meeting.

Bills approved Wednesday, the last scheduled day of session, included:

  • A measure to address the speculative market for tickets to sports and entertainment events. It is aimed at problems caused for consumers on the secondary ticket marketplace, and will force resellers of tickets to refund money if the reseller does not sell the ticket at an agreed-upon price with consumers. Critics say it failed to deal with ticket selling problems for charitable events. For pro sports teams with stadiums that hold more than 30,000 seats, it allows franchises to offer membership passes to consumers giving discounts to games within a set time frame.
  • Increases random drug and alcohol testing of school bus drivers, and banning alcohol consumption from bus operators from the current six hours before driving to eight hours prior.
  • Creation of a Lyme and tick-borne disease working group within various state agencies to study ways to better coordinate public health responses to the diseases that continue to expand across areas of the state.
  • Permitting medical marijuana to be used as an alternative to opioids for pain management and substance use disorders and adding bereavement time off as part of the state’s paid family leave law.

But most of the more than 100 bills given final approval Wednesday were hyperlocal in nature. There was a bill dealing with a town clerk’s ability to issue dog licenses, relaxing residency requirements for officials who work in upstate communities that continue to see population losses, and giving various religious groups permission to obtain property tax exemptions.

A measure to legalize sports gambling in New York, including via online wagering, died. A measure to modernize decades' old "bell jar" gambling, a paper kind of slot-like form of betting that's offered by charity groups, was pushed through.

Lawmakers in both parties said the Legislature this year failed a key opportunity to deal with issues raised in two high-profile corruption cases: the trial earlier this year that led to the conviction Percoco, the former Cuomo adviser, and the Buffalo Billion trial that began this week in a Manhattan courtroom. Left undone were two measures: creation of a searchable online database of all contracts entered into by the state’s economic development agency, and restoring oversight of certain economic development programs that were stripped from the oversight of the state comptroller in 2011 and 2012.

“Politics won the day and everyone went into their respective political camps at the end of the day and the leadership of the Assembly wanted to protect the Democratic governor. And that’s what happened,’’ said Walter, the Amherst GOP lawmaker.

Krueger, the Manhattan senator, said she was frustrated that many big-ticket items – from gun control to women’s reproductive health measures – were not acted upon. But she expressed confidence the matters will return next year with Democrats in control of the Senate.

“For a lot of us, we feel, ‘All right. We’ve waited a really long time to pass important legislation. We can wait until January,’ " Krueger said.

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