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June 25, 2013

Albany session marked by deals, scandals

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — While the 2013 legislative session at the state Capitol was blemished by corruption charges against four lawmakers, it wound up with New York on course to allow voters to decide whether to allow full-blown private casinos to open upstate and a deal to set up tax-free zones near college campuses.

The same session also saw the resignation of a powerful veteran Democrat, Assemblyman Vito Lopez of Brooklyn, after he was accused of sexual harassment and lecherous advances towards young female aides.

Tarnished in that scandal was state government’s second most powerful Democrat, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who was criticized in investigative reports for trying to keep the Lopez scandal secret and authorizing unusual payouts with taxpayer funds to the victims.

Though the beginning of a session is usually occupied with budgetary matters, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the heels of the Connecticut school massacre in December, aggressively pushed through the New York SAFE ACT —a ban on assault weapons that many New York gun owners argue infringes on their constitutional rights.

Lawmakers made a minor amendment to the law last week, opting to allow retired police officers to own large-capacity ammunition clips, which the SAFE Act prohibits for those not involved in law enforcement.

Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said Monday he voted against the new amendment, even though he noted was sympathetic to the merits of allowing retired officers to own magazines holding more than the seven-shell limit on other gun owners.

“I’m holding out for full repeal,” Seward said.

Cuomo had billed his own legislation as the first legislative response in the nation to the Connecticut tragedy. Bugt over the months that followed his public approval rating slipped notably — especially among upstate voters, according to public polls.

His administration has since focused heavily on promoting the legislation setting up tax free zones near State University campuses, a plan billed as an economic stimulus program. The governor initially called his plan “Tax-Free NY.”

What emerged from the Legislature was a revised plan — “START-UP NY” — that did more to protect existing businesses from what would have been an uneven playing field had they had to compete with the new firms taking advantage of the tax breaks being doled out.

“This was a vast improvement over what the governor originally proposed,” Seward said.

For businesses relocating to New York or starting up here, the program, which kicks in in January, would eliminate all taxes for 10 years. Cuomo said he expects the program will provide “New York an edge like we’ve never had before when it comes to attracting businesses, start-ups, and new investment.”

The plan is opposed by the labor-backed New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, which argues it amounts to a “rehash” of earlier programs that offered tax incentives to businesses and that it said proved to be unsuccessful and wasteful and never created the promised jobs.

The casino plan, which would allow as many as four private casinos to open upstate, is also being described by the administration as a job-creation program for regions of upstate where employment opportunities have been scarce.

Throughout the session, the 30 Senate Republicans were able to control the 63-member upper chamber only with the assistance of a small group of breakaway senators known as the Independent Democratic Caucus.

Two former members of that caucus, Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens and John Sampson of Brooklyn, are among the four lawmakers who faced criminal charges during the session. Federal prosecutors have said more arrests are expected from an ongoing probe into Albany corruption.

“It’s been a different year,” Seward said.

It was also a session that left Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, disappointed.

“I would call it a missed opportunity,” said Lopez, noting the tendency to engage in political brinkmanship in Albany erodes the opportunity to pursue policies that could enhance job opportunities, deliver still-needed relief for floods and other disasters and deal with the high cost of energy.

“There is a huge disconnect between Albany’s priorities and the priorities of the people I am serving,” Lopez said while traveling back to Albany on Monday afternoon from a meeting at the State University College at Oneonta.

Among Cuomo’s priorities that stalled out at the end of the session were his 10-point “women’s agenda,” which would have moved current abortion statutes from the Penal Law to the Public Health Law. Critics of the proposal said it would have allowed non-doctors to perform late-term abortions. Advocates said the current laws need to be codified in the event the U.S. Supreme Court reverses its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The Senate passed the other nine points of the governor’s sse’s Equality Agenda. But Assembly Speaker Silver would not allow his house to take up the measures separately, insisting the 10-point package stay as one piece of legislation.

Thus, in the end, none of the proposals — including ones on which Democrats and Republicans agreed, such as stronger protections for victims of domestic violence — got through both houses. On Monday, Senate Republicans called on Silver to return his members to Albany so they could vote on the nine non-abortion bills that passed in the upper chamber.