Blair Horner: The 2018 Legislative Session – More Fizzle Than Sizzle

Jun 25, 2018

Now that the 2018 legislative session is in the rear view mirror, what should New Yorkers think? 

Back in March, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature were able to hammer out a budget agreement on time and which addressed a state deficit of billions of dollars. That agreement more or less kept the status quo in place.  For example, proposals by the governor to cut financial aid programs for low-income college students were rejected.  The most notable achievement was the governor’s success in establishing an alternative tax system that would offset some of the negative consequences of the federal tax law changes—though questions about whether it will pass muster with the IRS and be accepted by businesses in New York are still unanswered.

Close on the heels of finalizing the budget, the governor also forced a reunification of the two Democratic factions in the state Senate. 

Yet once the budget was complete, the governor set the legislative bar low by announcing that he expected little to get accomplished during the remainder of the session.  And his prophecy was right.

When lawmakers wrapped up the session last week, the finale ended with a fizzle, not a sizzle.  Typically, at the end of the session hundreds of bills are approved and that was once again the case.  But there is usually an agreement put together by legislative leaders and the governor that includes some big ticket initiatives – particularly in election years like 2018 – but this year there was no such agreement.

Largely that was the result of gridlock in the Senate.  The razor thin one seat Republican majority evaporated when one Senate Republican reported for military duty and was unavailable for the last weeks of the session.

And while some may cheer when little is accomplished in Albany, most New Yorkers expect our representatives to go to the state Capitol to solve problems – to the greatest extent possible.  When the session fizzles that work doesn’t get done.

As a result, some localities may see tax revenues drop off and the City of New York’s program to have cameras identify car speeders near schools will be unplugged.  In short, unless lawmakers return – and there are noises that they may do that – important work will be left undone.

One of the most obvious failures is that nothing was accomplished to reduce the risk of political corruption in New York.  Ironically, during the last week of session, two high profile corruption trials began: one the retrial of the former Senate Majority Leader and the second around the governor’s signature economic development project, the so-called “Buffalo Billion.”

But if you were walking the halls of the Capitol in the waning days of the session, you wouldn’t have known it.  There were no high-level negotiations.  Governor Cuomo, who organized a bus tour to push his gun control plan, was silent on what should be done to combat the incredible corruption crime wave that has gripped New York.

Each house of the Legislature passed reform bills, but ones that did not match the other house’s bills, thus ensuring the flawed status quo.

The inaction in Albany is in stunning contrast to the revelations coming out of the corruption trials.  The Buffalo Billion case, and a trial from earlier this year, shows the myriad ways Cuomo administration officials have circumvented laws requiring that records be preserved, and communications handed over for public scrutiny. The trials have documented that, outside of federal prosecutors issuing subpoenas for those records, there’s almost no recourse when state officials destroy or refuse to release records to the citizens who pay their salaries.

As one defense attorney stated this week, “You will learn that there is a New York state law called FOIL, Freedom of Information Law.”  Evading it, he said, “was almost sport in New York state government.”

“Sport” in state government is ignoring New York laws that ensure public accountability!  This “sport” contributes to the secrecy that shrouds too much of governmental decision-making.  It is this secrecy that has raised the risk of corruption.  And corruption is what New Yorkers have seen.

Unfortunately, what New Yorkers have not seen is action to address the too frequent scandals and corruption in their state government.  If lawmakers return, responding to the corruption crisis must be at the top of the “must do” list.  Otherwise, voters will get their chance to react on Election Day this November.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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