State’s Legislative Work May End With a Whimper

ALBANY, N.Y.—Facing fall re-election campaigns and an increasingly volatile political climate, state lawmakers are expected to adjourn their 2014 session without voting on high-profile issues including medical marijuana, public campaign financing, and a minimum wage increase.

Lawmakers returning to the Capitol Monday hope to wrap up their work for the year by June 19. While they’ll no doubt cast votes on dozens of issues important to particular industries, communities, or special interests, the big votes and big debates may have to wait.

Campaign finance, the Dream Act, and other liberal causes would have been a tough sell in the state Senate even before Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared political war on the coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats who control the legislative body. In exchange for the backing of the liberal-leaning Working Families Party, Cuomo vowed to work to give Democrats control of the Senate, either by defeating Republicans or by targeting any renegade Democrats that balk at returning to the party faithful.

The promise injected a significant dose of partisanship in the waning days of the session and worsened the outlook for many high-profile bills.

“Obviously, it’s going to be more challenging,” said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, adding that “the more controversial” topics sought by liberals wouldn’t be brought up this year. “The governor indicated throughout this entire session that politics would start on June 20, the day after we’re adjourning. Obviously he accelerated that.”

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Democratic Conference leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said while she is hopeful that something may come out of the last two weeks of the session, it’s unlikely that controversial bills like the 10-point women’s equality agenda will get accomplished.

Last-Minute Deals

Still, with the outcome of hundreds of bills hanging in the balance, it’s possible lawmakers could work out last-minute deals on the bigger topics.

“Two weeks is a lifetime in political terms, especially the last two weeks,” said Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens).

Sen. Jeff Klein, who leads the faction of Democrats who control the Senate with Republicans, said it would be wrong to let politics—or Cuomo’s threats to the Senate majority coalition—get in the way of legislation. He said he’s still holding out hope that medical marijuana, or public campaign financing, could pass this month. He said he’d also like to pass proposals to help homeowners facing foreclosure and go after elder abuse.

“We still have two weeks to govern,” Klein said. “The political season has not started yet as far as I’m concerned.”

Manhattan Democrat Sen. Liz Krueger ruled out any major legislative splashes but didn’t cast medical marijuana legislation entirely aside.

While the Compassionate Care Act is making its way through the Senate, the medical marijuana bill sponsor, Sen. Diane Savino, said she is amending the bill, the second time in the last few months, to quell some of the opposition and hasn’t ruled out a vote before session concludes.

An analysis of the 2013 legislative session by the New York Public Interest Research Group found that 66 percent of all Senate bills were passed during the last month of the legislative session, with 36 percent of those bills passed in the last week. Most of the legislation was small municipal-based bills.

Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh has a long list of items he’d like to see pass before adjournment: legislation to require CPR training in high schools, the minimum wage increase, changes to runoff election rules, and a proposal to make ballots easier to read.

“My goal is to push to have the conversations now,” he said. “We should not prematurely declare the session adjourned. We don’t stop until it’s done.”

Open Issues at End of New York Legislative Session

Some of the issues that may be left unresolved as New York lawmakers work to end their session this month:

  • Minimum wage increase: Gov. Andrew Cuomo signaled his support for raising the wage to $10.10 and letting New York City and other communities boost it even further. But opponents said a hike could raise prices and decrease employment.
  • Medical marijuana: In January, Cuomo announced a pilot program to allow 20 hospitals statewide to prescribe medical marijuana to qualified patients. In the Legislature, the Compassionate Care Act would allow patients with 1 of 20 debilitating diseases to be administered the drug. Another measure prohibits smoking marijuana entirely, but it could be administered through edibles, oils, and vaporizers.
  • Heroin: Lawmakers have introduced more than 30 bills to combat the rise of heroin use in New York. They target prevention, increased criminal penalties, and increased access to the opioid antidote naloxone. A bill that would provide a general prescription of naloxone to pharmacies has passed both houses and is awaiting Cuomo’s signature.
  • Campaign finance: Lawmakers authorized a pilot program to extend public campaign financing to state comptroller candidates this year, but supporters want a broader system that applies to all statewide offices and even legislators. Conservatives, who said campaigns would be a bad use of public money, have blocked that proposal so far this year.
  • Education tax credit: The state would give a tax credit for charitable donations made for educational purposes. The legislation would be worth up to $300 million a year, with half going to public school programs and half going to scholarships for students who attend private schools.
  • “Zombie” houses: Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and a number of mayors want lawmakers to require mortgage lenders to maintain houses that have been abandoned through foreclosure.
  • Women’s equality agenda: The 10-point agenda covers topics like reproductive rights, pay equity, sexual harassment, human trafficking, and tougher order-of-protection laws.
  • Dream Act: the act would extend state financial aid to students in the country illegally. It has repeatedly passed the Assembly but failed this year in the Senate.