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Politics and Government

Session finally draws to a close

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Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (left), Gov. Andrew Cuomo (center) and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan congratulate each other as they reach final agreement on end-of-session legislation.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders of the legislature finally settled all of their differences to finalize the legislation to end the session.

The measure, colloquially known as “the big ugly," contains a four-year extension of the rent regulations, and a corresponding continuation of a property tax cap, as well as new rebate checks sent to homeowners just before Election Day 2016.

Cuomo and legislative leaders held another news conference two days after announcing the elements of the deal, to put the best face on it.

“We actually extended the protection  for tenants, and this bill goes further than any bill in history,” Cuomo said.

Tenant groups are not as enthralled. They have criticized the measure, which would up the vacancy decontrol threshold for when apartments re-enter the open market by just $200, to a rate of $2,700 a month. They say 100,000 rent stabilized apartments will be lost over the four-year extension.

The property tax rebate checks, which will average over $300 per homeowner in the first year, are scheduled to be mailed out shortly before November 2016, when all members of the legislature are up for election. The checks will be combined with an existing program that rebates taxpayers a portion of the taxes they have already paid, if their local schools or government comply with certain rules to keep spending down.  After 2016, the amounts of the checks will be tied to income, up to $275,000 a year, on Long Island and $200,000 upstate, with those making the most money getting the smallest checks.    

The agreement also contains a number of other compromises.

An education tax credit, supported by Cuomo and Senate Republicans was dropped after it could not win enough support among Assembly Democrats. Instead private and religious schools will receive reimbursement for $250 million for some costs already incurred. Public schools in the city of Yonkers will get an additional $25 million in aid, but Cuomo had to abandon a last minute proposal to give an additional $75 million to struggling upstate schools.

The messy end of session also includes agreements on short extenders – one additional year for mayoral control of the New York City schools, and a six-month extension of a tax break for real estate developers who build some affordable housing. The industry and construction worker unions will be required in that time period to settle a dispute over whether to pay prevailing union wages for all of the projects.   

Cuomo, acknowledges that it’s been a “challenging” session, after the two legislative leaders were arrested and accused of running multi-million dollar corruption schemes, and had to be replaced. And he concedes it was better, in a session that had already dragged on eight days past it’s deadline, to compromise.

“At the end of the day, progress is better than stalemate,” Cuomo said.

As lawmakers awaited the bills to be printed, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who’s been on the job for only a short time, after former leader Dean Skelos resigned over the corruption charges, seems relieved to have it all behind him.

“There are a tremendous number of good things that we achieved,” said Flanagan, who said that some things he considers bad policy were avoided.

Cuomo and leaders cite a new anti sexual assault program on college campuses as an achievement, but say they will have to try again in the next year to agree on a number of other criminal justice reforms, including making grand juries more transparent.   

The governor is using his executive powers to remove 16 -and 17-year-olds from state prison, and to appoint the state’s attorney general  as a special prosecutor, for a one year term, in cases where unarmed civilians are killed during encounters with police.

There was one late addition to the massive bill. Cuomo will be given the authority to perform marriage ceremonies. Cuomo says he’s had to turn down numerous requests from same sex couples who wanted him to officiated after gay marriages became legal in New York in 2011.

“Some of these marriages are very meaningful to me, personally, and I’d like the opportunity to officiate,” Cuomo said.

The governor joked that he currently has no particular marriages in mind.

“Anyone who’s interested, let me know,” he said.

Once again, Cuomo and the legislature agreed to forgo the three-day waiting period for bills, required by law, and the governor issued a special message to speed up the process. He says there’s an urgent need for lawmakers to act quickly, because a temporary extension of the rent laws has already expired.