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Election year politics a factor in legislative session's final weeks

Zack Seward

Now that the major political party conventions are over, state officials are shifting their focus back to the remaining issues in the legislative session, which ends in four weeks. But politics are still front and center in the session's waning days.

The spotlight will continue to be on Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the final weeks of the session, and whether he achieves the three major items he laid out in his acceptance speech to delegates at the party convention.

“We must pass a Women’s Equality Act, public finance, and a Dream Act,” Cuomo told a cheering crowd. “And we will!”

The Women’s Equality Act contains an abortion rights provision that would codify into New York state law the elements of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Cuomo has been seeking to expand New York City’s small donor matching public campaign finance system to statewide offices. The Dream Act would provide college tuition aid for the children of undocumented immigrants.

Cuomo is under pressure from the left in his party to deliver on those three measures. He’s also getting heat from the progressive Working Families Party, which is still mulling whether or not to endorse him for reelection when they meet for their convention on May 31.   

Cuomo, in his speech and other recent remarks, is blaming the leadership in the state Senate for the stalemate.

“The state Senate so far has failed to deliver,” Cuomo said. The Senate is ruled by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats.

Senate co-leader and head of the Independent Democrats, Jeff Klein, has pushed publicly for enacting public campaign finance for statewide offices. He says he has not given up on achieving it this session.

“I’m hopeful we can get something done for other statewide elected officials as well as the legislature, before the end of the session,” Klein said recently.

Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos says there are ongoing talks.

“There have been discussion about non-taxpayer campaign finance, and we’ll see,” said Skelos, who says a check off on tax return forms is being considered.

The door has opened a crack for public campaign finance. As part of the budget deal in late March, Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed to a pilot program for this year’s state comptroller race.

The Republican candidate, Onondaga County Comptroller Bob Antonacci, says he’ll take advantage of the matching small donor fund source, which will come from the state’s unclaimed deposits fund. Incumbent Comptroller Tom DiNapoli says he won’t participate because the program is too flawed.   

“They changed the rules on me -- and on this race -- three-and-half years into a four-year election cycle,” DiNapoli said. “It really wasn’t done in a fair way.”

Reform groups agree with DiNapoli and say more is needed.

The Senate has already voted on the Dream Act, and the measure failed. An abortion rights provision in the Women’s Equality Act may not have enough votes, when Republicans and Democrats are counted together, to pass in the Senate.

Cuomo is getting some support from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who says the governor’s successes on progressive issues like same sex marriage and gun control earlier in his term may have unrealistically raised expectations.

“He’s a victim of his own success,” Silver said.

Silver says the Working Families Party should endorse Cuomo for reelection, saying a third party candidate on the left would not win and would take votes away from the governor.

“They’ll be helping the Republicans,” Silver said. “I don’t think that’s their intention.”

The Assembly, led by Democrats who outnumber Republicans two-to-one in the chamber, has passed all three of the measures Cuomo wants.

The speaker predicts, though, that a more comprehensive form of public campaign financing will not be enacted this year.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.