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Two days before session ends, issues unresolved

Karen DeWitt

With the legislative session down to the wire, groups for and against bills — including expansion of Uber ride services and ethics reform — came to the Capitol to make their voices heard.

The hallways of the Capitol were noisy with protesters, advocates and even groups of schoolchildren on field trips with only two days left in the session.

Taxi drivers demonstrated against a measure that would expand phone app-based ride services such as Uber and Lyft to Long Island and upstate, chanting, “Uber, shame on you.” That measure was stalled over arguments about the amount of insurance coverage drivers would be required to purchase.

Also, ethics reform remains unresolved, in a year when both former leaders of the legislature have been sentenced to prison for corruption, and state and federal prosecutors are looking at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s economic development projects.

Longtime League of Women Voters lobbyist Barbara Bartoletti expressed frustration at the lack of action on items, including closing a giant campaign finance loophole that allows big money donors to make unlimited contributions to candidates by setting up multiple limited liability companies.

Bartoletti said if lawmakers leave Albany without enacting reforms, they should lose their seats on Election Day.

“I’ve given up,” Bartoletti said. “Make sure that some of these people don’t come back next January, and maybe that will change the culture of corruption.”

Cuomo, who has sought a number of reforms, including a crackdown on super political action committees, has expressed doubts that he can convince the legislature to act.

“I’ve threatened them, cajoled them, tried to charm them,” Cuomo said in Niagara Falls on June 9. “They do not want to pass ethics reform.”

Even some lawmakers took to the halls to try to urge passage of measures that concern them. Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi joined a group of homeless activists who want the governor and legislature to move on Cuomo’s promised 20,000 new units of supportive housing. Six thousand units were approved in the state budget, but a memorandum of understanding between Cuomo and the leaders of the Senate and the Assembly is required before the rest of the funds can be spent.

Hevesi said the homeless projects are caught up in a larger dispute over how to renew a special tax break for real estate developers who include affordable housing in their projects, known as 421a. That law expired last year.

“Everything is doable,” Hevesi said. “You can’t keep ignoring people who are voiceless.”

Senate Democrats stood outside their chambers and called for changes to teacher evaluation rules put in place last year. They want to uncouple increases in school aid to the enactment of the new teacher performance reviews. Those evaluation plans have been largely discredited and put on hold by the state Board of Regents.

Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called on Senate Republicans to allow a bill to repeal a year-old teacher evaluation law on the floor for a vote.

“It makes complete sense to not hold education funding hostage to an evaluation system that has yet to be worked out,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan said the change isn’t needed right now. He said schools saw a record increase in state aid in the state budget, and no school has been punished with less state funding for not enacting the new teacher evaluations.

“There is no school district that has lost money,” Flanagan said after a leaders meeting on June 9.

Cuomo and lawmakers, in a series of news releases Tuesday, announced an agreement to make it easier to get treatment for heroin and opioid addiction, and to better train health care professionals on administering the drugs.

It’s also likely there will be agreement on expanding gambling to permit daily fantasy sports contests to be available to New Yorkers, and for restaurants and bars to sell alcohol starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays.

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.