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Major decisions on casinos, hydrofracking and Thruway tolls due before the end of the year

It’s looking less and less likely that state senators and Assembly members will get a pay raise as a holiday present this year, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers still have a number of issues they need to resolve before the year ends, ranging from the siting of gambling casinos to how to close a Thruway deficit and whether to go ahead with hydrofracking.

Lawmakers' hopes for a pay raise in the new term are fading with the waning days of 2014, as Cuomo continues to press for an ethics reform package in exchange for a salary hike. The governor, over the past few days, has said lawmakers have not agreed to greater disclosure of outside incomes and campaign finance reform -- items that Cuomo has tried, unsuccessfully, to get approved for at least two years.

Despite the absence of a special session, there are still a number of major issues that will reach their conclusion in the next few days. A state board will reveal which gambling conglomerates will be permitted to open four new casinos in three regions -- the Hudson Valley and Catskills, the Albany area and Southern Tier-Finger Lakes.

The New York State Thruway board is meeting on December 19. The Thruway has a multimillion dollar  deficit in the upcoming years, partly due to the construction of the new Tappan  Zee Bridge. Some lawmakers have speculated that toll hikes could be on the table, although  a spokesman for the Thruway says toll increases will  not be part of the 2015 budget.

Cuomo suggests that perhaps the state could make up the Thruway’s operating deficit, as occurred in 2013, when the Thruway authority proposed, then rescinded a plan to steeply raise truck tolls.

“If you don’t want to increase the tolls, the government can subsidize the rate,” Cuomo said. “If you don’t want to pay a Tappan Zee toll of X, the government can subsidize the toll.”

 A long-awaited report on the health effects of hydrofracking is also expected to be released before December 31. Lobbyists on both sides are gearing up. Environmental groups plan protests, if fracking is to be allowed, even just in communities that want to begin gas drilling.

The Natural Resource Defense Council’s Kate Sinding is pressing Cuomo to declare a new moratorium of three to five years.

“We are counting on governor to continue standing his ground,” Sinding said. “And not cave to pressure from powerful oil and gas companies.”

One major issue that will not be resolved in the next two weeks is how to reform the state’s criminal justice system to restore public trust when an unarmed civilian is killed in a confrontation with police.

Cuomo wants to approach the topic differently than the gun control laws approved two years ago, which were hastily written and passed early in January. Cuomo says he wants time for lawmakers and the public to deliberate over a package of proposals he intends to introduce at his State of the State speech January 7.

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.