The legislative session is set to end Thursday, and as always, lawmakers will make a dash to the finish line with a number of key issues still unresolved. Reforming New York’s ethics laws, expanding laws to fight the heroin scourge, legalizing daily fantasy sports, allowing ride-sharing services upstate and increasing tests of lead in water at schools are proposals that are under discussion.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have been meeting behind closed doors in recent days to consider the measures, as well as other matters — such as expanding Sunday hours for alcohol sales.
In some years, the six-month legislative session has extended for a week or more as the sides hammer out thorny details before they break for the year.
But after a session darkened by scandal and with all 213 legislative seats up for election in November, lawmakers are eager to get out of Albany.
“We’re leaving on Thursday,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, told reporters Thursday afternoon.
“There’s agreement on that,” Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, who represents parts of Westchester County, joked.
Still, the issues up for debate are no joking matter and could have broad implications for New Yorkers:
Cuomo upped the ante Wednesday when he expanded his call for new ethics laws in the wake of the sentencing last month of the two former legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County. Both were convicted on corruption charges.
Cuomo said the state should enact stronger campaign-finance laws after the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. The federal ruling allowed for independent expenditures to boost political candidates and their causes essentially through limitless amounts of spending.
Additionally, Cuomo and lawmakers are seeking a constitutional amendment that would a judge to strip lawmakers of their taxpayer-funded pensions if they are convicted of a felony. Cuomo has also called for closing a loophole that allows limited liability companies to skirt campaign-finance laws.
However, it is uncertain whether they can reach a deal.
“I have threatened them, cajoled them, tried to charm them, told them jokes,” Cuomo said of lawmakers. “They do not want to pass ethics reforms.”
Some legislators, though, said they shouldn’t leave the Capitol without toughening laws to help prevent further scandals.
Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, Westchester County, is pressing for rules that would increase transparency and limit conflicts of interest among lobbyists, companies and state officials.
“We’ve got to say to people, ‘You can’t just give a campaign contribution and expect that you’re going to get that contract from the state of New York,’” Galef said.
Cuomo said ethics laws, ways to better treat heroin addiction and stronger measures to fight breast cancer are his top priorities for the last week of session.
Cuomo’s girlfriend, TV chef Sandra Lee, has battled breast cancer in recent years, and the Democratic governor said the state needs to improve prevention and treatment of the disease.
“They should not leave without passing ethics reform. I want to see the state have a real plan to combat heroin, which is a major problem, which is costing us lives every day,” Cuomo told reporters Thursday in Niagara Falls. “I think the state can do a better plan in terms of having a breast cancer plan: prevention, treatment, education.”
Cuomo and lawmakers appear likely to get an agreement on heroin bills. Heroin deaths have soared in New York, outpacing the national average, a report Thursday showed.
The issue has cut across all parts of the state, lawmakers said. The Republican-led Senate has already passed a series of anti-heroin laws, such as increasing treatment options and closing insurance loopholes.
Sen. Terrence Murphy, R-Yorktown, Westchester County, said in a statement he’s “confident that we will pass milestone legislation this year to advance our efforts to win New York’s war on addiction.”
Daily fantasy sports
The heads of the legislature’s racing and wagering committees had indicted in recent days that a deal was reached to regulate daily fantasy sports contests in New York.
But since then, the agreement appears to be unraveling amid concerns from lawmakers and pressure from the state’s existing racetracks with gambling operations.
The tracks want the fantasy sports sites to be regulated and to pay taxes on par with their facilities. Under the initial construction, the sites would have a lower tax rate — about 15 percent of revenue — and not face the same regulatory hurdles as other gaming entities, critics said.
“We believe that fantasy sports is gambling,” said James Featherstonhaugh, who heads the state Gaming Association, which represents the tracks. “It’s an expansion of gambling, and if you’re going to do that — which we’re not opposed to that — we believe it should be done in the same landscape that’s been put in place, with the same licensing requirements and the same oversight and regulation.”
FanDuel and DraftKings, the two biggest sites, agreed to suspend operations in New York as part of an agreement with state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He hadsued the companies and accused them of skirting gambling laws.
So the companies support the bills to regulate them.
“We remain hopeful the sports capital of the world will welcome and support the newest national pastime — fantasy sports,” the group, Fantasy Sports for All, which is representing the companies, said.
Ride-sharing services are pressing for a law that would give them greater access to operate outside New York City and move into the city’s suburbs and upstate.
Uber and Lyft, the two most prominent companies, said they need state legislation to make it feasible to operate outside the city. The companies operate under Taxi and Limousine Commission regulations in New York City.
But taxi owners are fighting the legislation, and lawmakers want to allow local governments to be able to regulate the industry. Also, legislators want to provide workers’ compensation for drivers and adequate insurance protections for riders.
“We want to assure local control where local control is sought in upstate New York,” said Assembly Insurance Committee chairman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, Ulster County.
The companies have led a broad advertising campaign to win legislative approval, saying they would produce at least 13,000 jobs in the first year through new drivers.
Sen. Rich Funke, R-Penfield, Monroe County, said he was hopeful a deal could be struck, saying the ride services can address some of the transportation needs upstate.
“It’s good for a wide range of people in our community, whether it’s people with disabilities, whether it’s people who otherwise need transportation,” Funke said. “It would be helpful for a lot of people.”
Lead in water
Lead found in school water has been a growing concern across the state and the nation, and there is a bill that would require schools to regularly test water for lead.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, said he’s talking with lawmakers about a possible deal in the final days of session.
In particular, legislators in the Southern Tier want the bill after a number of schools in the region tested positive for lead in water — as well as similar results in the Rochester area and Hudson Valley.
Lawmakers said they have a bipartisan agreement but need support from legislative leaders and Cuomo.
“We’ve worked closely with all of the stakeholders to craft legislation that would require periodic testing of school drinking water and ensure the results are made public,” said Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell. “We are encouraging our colleagues to make this a priority before session ends.”
Lawmakers will pass hundreds of bills before the session ends, and other issues of statewide importance that may pass include giving victims of sexual abuse greater ability to take legal action against their accusers; expanding access to medical marijuana and letting restaurants sell alcohol on Sunday brunches before noon.
Cuomo said there will be plenty of discussions before Thursday — or likely into Friday morning.
“The way the legislature works is they tend to be slow in the beginning and then get a lot done in the very end,” he said.
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