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Analysis

Albany 101: When a law isn't really a law – yet

ALBANY – At the state Capitol, there are rules, no rules and rules to be ignored.

Consider, for the latter entry, Section 10 of the Assembly’s internal rules of operation, and the accompanying Section 4a of the Senate’s version: a specified timetable for the transmittal of approved bills to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his consideration.

The idea is to keep legislation approved by lawmakers from drifting in a state of limbo. Bills have effective dates for a reason – meaning when they actually kick into law and begin having an impact on New Yorkers – and, so, legislation should be sent to the governor in a timely manner.

But, year in and year out, the timely transmittal rule gets tossed aside in Albany.

For a few reasons, however, this year is even more glaring.

As of late last week, Cuomo had still not asked lawmakers to send him 435 bills were approved by both houses during the 2019 session. That’s the six-month session that ended in June, and the still-languishing bills were approved as long ago as Feb. 12.

Some of the remaining bills, according to a legislative database search, include:

• Additional treatments and coverage for sexual abuse victims exposed to HIV and a major ban on certain toxic chemicals from being used in children’s products.

• Creating a new independent entity, as 40 other states have, to look out specifically for the interest of residential utility ratepayers and making clear about routine care orders for hospice patients that do not have surrogate decision-makers.

• Dozens of geographic-specific measures, such as raising a hotel occupancy tax in Niagara County to help fund a local tourist shuttle; designating an area off Long Island for special protections of marine mammals; and letting the Tonawanda City School District create a health insurance reserve fund to bolster its finances.

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Worrisome time for some

Stakeholders in the various unsigned bills voiced everything from concern to anger that pieces of legislation they saw approved have not gotten a final answer from Cuomo.

One of those in the concerned category is Bonnie Parsons, an adoptee in Clarence, who supports a bill that makes it possible for adults who were adopted as children to obtain from the state a copy of their original birth certificate.

The initiative is scheduled to start, according to the bill, in mid-January; the birth certificates can be obtained by adoptees who are at least 18 years old. Advocates say the documentation is needed for a range of potential reasons, including helping adult adoptees obtain biological medical history about themselves or to learn more about their family backgrounds.

“Does this mean that the legislation is in danger?" Parsons wrote in an email response to questions about the bill, which passed 196-12 in the two houses the day before session ended on June 21.

Parsons said she is worried the planned January start date will be delayed given the now eroding time window.

The bill action logjam is creating some sour feelings among key constituent groups for the Democratic Party – the party that now controls all branches of government in Albany.

One example is Senate bill 4573 by Sen. Tim Kennedy of Buffalo and its companion bill, A6592 sponsored by Assemblyman Sean Ryan, also from Buffalo. Both are Democrats, as is Cuomo. The bill resides with the Senate, per state law as the chamber that passed it first in a measure that sailed through with strong Democratic backing.

Employees picketed in front of the GM Powertrain Plant on Oct. 14 as part of the United Auto Workers strike against GM. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The bill permits workers on strike to apply for unemployment insurance after one week of a labor action – down from the current seven-week delay. Among the biggest proponents was the United Auto Workers. Union officials say they began pushing the bill in February without, they stressed, any knowledge that members would go out on strike against General Motors in an action that lasted nearly six weeks.

Union officials say they were led to believe Cuomo was going to sign the bill. But something happened: the nationwide UAW strike in mid-September. Despite intense lobbying by unions and lawmakers before and after the strike began, the bill went untouched by the governor.

“Yes, we were not happy the governor did not sign that bill," said UAW Region 9 Director Jeff Binz, the head of the labor regional whose members include Central and Western New York.

Binz said no one from the Cuomo administration revealed why the bill was not acted on. “It would have been a little more comfortable if we’d been able to get unemployment," Binz said of UAW members, who toward the end of the strike were getting $275 in weekly union benefit payments.

A logjam is created

Why are there so many bills still pending with just a couple months to go before a Dec. 31 deadline for Cuomo to act?

The first thing to know in this Albany 101 lesson is that the Legislature – only via tradition in modern times – has ceded control to the governor regarding the transmittal timing of legislation.

The Legislature, with Democrats in control of both houses after the GOP was ousted from power with the session’s start in January, have noted with considerable alacrity an almost singular mantra to define 2019: Lawmakers, and not the governor, run the Legislature.

Indeed, if a civics class were to look through state law and the rules of the two houses, students would be left with the impression that the Legislature determines when an approved bill gets sent to the governor.

Assembly rules state that approved bills controlled by the Assembly be sent to Cuomo within 10 to 45 days, depending upon the time of year. The Senate has a 30-day deadline in its rules.

Then there’s Albany reality. In practice, bills get sent to Cuomo by the Legislature when Cuomo says so. It’s been a modern-era tradition going back many governors. The two houses have come to learn that to jam governors by quickly sending, for instance, hundreds of bills that get passed in the final weeks of session would, by default, spawn gubernatorial wrath directed at the Legislature and, more importantly for rank-and-file lawmakers, near-certain vetoes of many of their bills.

Cuomo official: due diligence at work

That Cuomo has so many bills left to consider in the eight weeks is also the result of an especially busy legislative season. With Democrats in control, 2019 was seen by lawmakers as a year to get long-stalled items passed. In six months, they approved 935 bills; it was the most since 2006, and three-quarters of them came during the final three weeks of session in June.

Adding to the situation is the empowerment felt by many Democrats in the two houses who largely cut Cuomo out of some non-budget talks over a range of policy-oriented legislation. That made Cuomo in no frantic rush to sign some bills.

Meanwhile, his counsel’s office – which goes through each piece of legislation and itself had turnover at the top of its helm this summer – is trying to ensure drafting mistakes weren’t made by lawmakers or that, for instance, proposals don’t end up costing money for a state budget that was already put together in early April.

“It is our responsibility that the bills, as written, are responsible, enforceable and accomplish their intended purpose," said Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesman.

Legislature: Everything will be fine

Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, noted the tradition of the governor being the one to determine when bills are sent to him. To do otherwise, he noted, could set up a veto environment for bills lawmakers want to see get enacted into law.

“We strive to work with the executive (branch) to ensure the orderly transmittal and consideration of bills during the course of the year," added Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “We have our normal backlog of bills and we are working well with the governor to ensure they get full consideration."

Besides the big rush of bills this year, the 2019 logjam in Cuomo’s office can have additional explanations. In some cases, Cuomo’s staff tries to negotiate deals with lawmakers to make changes to a bill when they return to Albany in 2020.

State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

There is a public relations’ explanation, as well. Cuomo can get a day’s worth of publicity – as he has often over the summer and fall months – with his signature on a single bill that, in some cases, his office had little to do with when enacted by lawmakers this past spring or even winter. Also, the delay gives special interests with access to the governor’s office time to make their case to get Cuomo to sign or veto a pending bill.

Lawmakers certainly note the backlog, but public complaints are rare, especially when Cuomo holds the final cards on whether the remaining hundreds of bills get approved.

With Democrats now running the Legislature, creating an anxiety to pass lots of pent-up bills, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, called the pileup of bills before the governor “a new normal."

The Buffalo Democrat has four bills not yet sent to Cuomo, including one giving Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center more flexibility in its procurement contract awards.

“I am not concerned about my bills getting signed,"’ she said.

Meanwhile, Kennedy, the Buffalo Democrat, has 10 other bills pending besides the unemployment insurance measure sought by unions. They include new penalties against adults who leave a young child unattended in a vehicle; creation of an environmental program to be run by manufacturers in order for consumers to return unused cans of paint; and holding the Buffalo School Board elections on Election Day in Novembers, instead of May, as a way to boost voter turnout.

“I think all of these bills are extremely important. … My hope is that all of these bills will be signed in a timely manner. I’m confident they will be and I haven’t had any indication that they won’t be," Kennedy said.

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