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Prevailing wage expansion looks dead: What's happening in Albany

ALBANY – Even in the new era of full Democratic control at the State Capitol, old habits are hard to break.

This week, as always, the State Senate and Assembly are racing to pass scores of bills important and mundane – and they’ve extended the legislative session into Thursday.

On Thursday morning, two of the last thorny issues dropped off the table: a prevailing wage system for private projects and permitting compensated gestational surrogacy arrangements used often by gay or infertile couples.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, on an Albany radio show, said the Assembly has blocked passage of a plan to raise wages, and other benefits, for construction workers on private development projects that get any sort of public money to help finance them. Unions were pushing for the bill, and developers and other economic development executives, especially upstate, looked to derail it.

Cuomo said Assembly Democrats did not want to do the bill because he wanted to exclude New York City from the new prevailing wage requirements; many lawmakers from upstate, including Assembly Democrats, were opposed to Cuomo's prevailing wage plan because they said it would halt many development projects and cost jobs.

"I don't believe at this time it's going to pass,'' Cuomo said.

While Cuomo was on the radio, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, issued a statement saying his house would not be taking up a plan to permit paid surrogacy arrangements. Many women and activist groups raised concerns that women, especially low-income individuals, could be exploited by a system allowing payments to carry someone's child.

"We must ensure that the health and welfare of women who enter into these arrangements are protected, and that reproductive surrogacy does not become commercialized. This requires careful thought,'' Heastie said.

The Democratic-led State Legislature since January has approved major legislation on voting reform, rent control and granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

But a host of issues remained in flux as the Senate and Assembly sprinted past Wednesday’s scheduled final day of session.

From improving protections for victims of sexual harassment to limiting greenhouse gas emissions and from legalizing electric scooters to making farm workers eligible for overtime, legislators have had a lengthy to-do list.

Here’s the latest on where things stood as of Thursday.

Sexual harassment

The Assembly and Senate on Wednesday approved sweeping legislation that would make it easier for victims of sexual harassment to sue their employers.

The bill would improve protections for workers who say they’ve been sexually harassed; bar nondisclosure agreements and mandatory arbitration clauses in discrimination cases; and extend the statute of limitations to three years for discrimination or sexual harassment claims, among other changes.

Debate on the legislation followed a hearing held in February in the State Legislature to address the issue.

Former legislative and executive branch staffers testified to the harassment they say they experienced and the inadequate response from their employers.

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat who last year unseated a powerful lawmaker accused by a Senate staffer of sexual misconduct, was a key backer of the bill.

"From the very beginning, this process has been about doing the necessary work to address the ways in which our current laws and systems silence victims of sexual harassment," Biaggi said after its passage.


A reckoning in Albany as victims of lawmakers' sex harassment tell their stories

Sports gambling

Efforts to legalize online sports betting in New York died in the Assembly. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said there are concerns that online betting would violate the state constitution.

Four upstate casinos, along with Indian tribes that operate casinos, including the Seneca Nation of Indians, are set sometime this year to begin offering in-person sports betting under the terms of a 2013 law. That statute said the casinos could add sports wagering if a federal ban was ever lifted in the future.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned what had been a sports betting prohibition beyond Nevada and a couple of other states.

“I am disappointed. It was within our grasp,’’ said Sen. Joseph Addabbo, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Senate racing, gaming and wagering committee. He sponsored the sports betting bill, which passed in the Senate in recent days.

Addabbo said the state had an opportunity to bring in tax revenues, create jobs and reduce money that now goes for sports bets off-shore and states like New Jersey.

He said he is likely to now work on a constitutional amendment for 2020 to legalize the kind of wagering. “Unfortunately for the governor, he’s not part of the constitutional process. Now I get to draw up anything I like, in cooperation with the Assembly, so we can draw a much different, much broader bill” in that process, he said.

The online measure was being pushed by major gambling companies, pro sports leagues and pro players’ association and Pegula Sports and Entertainment, owners of the Bills and Sabres.

Farmworkers' rights

The Assembly has passed the Farmworker Fair Practices Labor Act, which proponents say provides those workers long-overdue protections.

The bill would allow farm workers to collectively bargain; pay them overtime after more than 60 hours per week, a compromise from the 40 hours per week in an early version; guarantee them at least one day off per week, but it does not allow them to strike.

Upstate farmers object to elements of the legislation, saying it doesn’t take into account the costs and demands of running a farm.

The Assembly passed the bill Wednesday following nearly five hours of debate. It passed in the Senate late Thursday following another lengthy and contentious round of discussion.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said the bill grants farm workers "the same rights and protections enjoyed by every other worker in New York State."

Catholic leaders said the bill recognizes “the basic human dignity” of farm workers, in the words of Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany.

But Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, said on the floor that he has talked to a number of financially strapped farmers in his district who told him, "This may be the last straw."

He added that "outside interests" are driving the legislation.

Farmers say state's proposed overtime rules at odds with agricultural life

Climate change

A bill that its backers say would position New York as the leading state in combating climate change has passed the Senate and Assembly.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act has the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders.

It would require 70% of electricity used in the state to come from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydro by 2030 – and 100% by 2040.

The act also sets the goal of eliminating 85% of greenhouse gas emissions – from a baseline of 1990 levels – from the state’s entire economy within 30 years.

A top official with the Business Council of New York State said the act puts the state in “uncharted territory.”

“If our companies are not competitive, there is risk of job loss to other jurisdictions with weaker standards, ultimately resulting in higher global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Darren Suarez, senior director of government affairs. “We need to get this right, to avoid a potential shipwreck.”

Bill ending nearly all greenhouse gases in New York nears approval

Electric scooters

The Senate on Wednesday gave final passage to a measure legalizing the use of electric scooters and electric bikes.

The devices have become part of a sharply growing industry in some other states by companies that rent the devices by the minute for travel on streets and sidewalks.

The bill, expected to be passed later in the Assembly, will let communities reject the devices’ use on their streets or, if they choose, to impose stronger safety rules than the state bill requires. Localities could also restrict the devices to certain areas of a city, town or village.

Supporters say the devices will benefit the environment and provide additional ways for people to get to work or go shopping, especially in “transit deserts” with limited public transportation options.

Amherst alienation

The Assembly sponsor of a bill that would ease the way for development near Amherst’s Northtown Center athletic facilities said she expects it will make it to the floor for a vote.

The town is seeking the state’s permission for a future exchange of parkland with Mensch Capital Partners, which owns the former Westwood Country Club.

Amherst officials say the process, known as alienation, would preserve most of the former golf course as green space.

The town is asking the state to preemptively alienate much of its Audubon recreational complex — about 93 acres — to give it flexibility as it hashes out details with Mensch.

Assemblywoman Karen McMahon, D-Amherst, said Wednesday afternoon the bill was in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. She said a companion bill is progressing in the Senate.

Capital spending

Still unresolved is the fate of a multibillion-dollar bill – which normally would have been a part of the state budget talks in March – to spread capital pork barrel projects around the state.

Cuomo is using the bill as negotiating leverage on other issues. The bill will go to projects earmarked by Cuomo, the Assembly and Senate and includes an array of projects in the Buffalo area. Much of it will end up being borrowed money.

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