Albany Applauds Itself, but Leaves Unfinished Business


(AP) New York’s 2012 legislative session coasted to a stop last Thursday, June 21, and voters will hear a lot about it during this fall’s legislative elections. Voters will hear how orderly it was and how it avoided long nights of tense, closeddoor negotiations and messy floor debates of past years.

Legislators will point to the twoyear session noting several accomplishments, many of them fitting the Albany term of “half a loaf” for falling short of the hype. But several were truly landmarks, including the legalizing same-sex marriage, capping the growth in property taxes, and the formation this year of a new agency to protect the disabled in state care.

Voters, however, will hear all were “historic” moments that eluded administrations and legislatures in a dark and damp Albany past.

The 2012 session continued the hype, while the substance faded.

After four years of gridlocking dysfunction involving most of the same people, lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have elevated the phrase “simple functioning,” into high praise. And they regularly heap it on each other.

At a joint press conference last Thursday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver called the session “a record of leadership and achievement unparalleled in recent memory.”

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos called it “one of the most productive and orderly legislative sessions I’ve been part of,” a span that covers over 25 years.

And Cuomo tagged it “one of the most successful in modern political history,” and “a magnificent accomplishment for the people of New York state” who, he advised, could be proud of “such a dramatic turnaround” for the “new New York.”

Even Silver’s announcement that the session would end on the last scheduled day-a simple calendar issue for most New Yorkers-drew rousing applause on cue. Staffers packed into Cuomo’s press conferences provided the sitcom laugh track for the news cameras.

Yet for New Yorkers, unemployment is still at 8.6 percent, and another deficit-this one $3.4 billion-is projected by the comptroller in the current state budget, while the state’s economic recovery and rise in wages trail the national recovery.

In Cuomo’s first year, Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats were more motivated than ever to overhaul their image as their stock plummeted and leadership became shaky. Cuomo gave them focus and lawmakers hitched their wagon to him.

And it worked. Gay marriage, a tax cap, and a rare cut in actual state spending in an austere state budget were among the changes Cuomo pushed. Polls showed New Yorkers were starting to see New York on the right track for the first time in a long time.

This year’s public pension reform continued the record. But Cuomo said he completed 90 percent of his legislative agenda and started trying to lower expectations. The result was that this year fewer bills were passed by both houses than since at least 1914, according to Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Voters, however, depend on the friction that is supposed to be inherent in the system as a check and balance. In a new Albany where getting along is the goal, that tension slackens.

The result is that big, tough issues went untouched, including raising the minimum wage, tax breaks to spur job growth, campaign finance reform, microstamping gun identification, proposed natural gas drilling using a process called hydrofracking, and Cuomo’s own calls to fix the secretive ethics and lobbying board. Too messy. But they are more essential for New Yorkers than just about anything else taken up this year.

Refrains of “Kumbaya” echoing in the Capitol halls also takes a toll on the truth.

Last Thursday, Skelos repeated the line Cuomo, Silver and much of the rank-and-file have repeated since it first wasn’t true and will continue through the campaigns: The 2012-13 budget was adopted “without any news taxes or fees.” The $2 billion tax increase adopted in December went a long way to balance the current budget.

Somehow it and the five annual increases adopted for public colleges disappeared, even though Cuomo and Skelos promised through the 2010 campaign and 11 months of 2011 that they were vehemently opposed to the “millionaire’s tax” and higher costs for New Yorkers.

That was followed this year by the biggest gift for which the Senate’s Republican majority and the Assembly’s Democratic majority could wish. Cuomo approved election district lines drawn by the majorities to protect their power and perks for the next 10 years, despite promises by them all to create an independent board.

This campaign, however, voters will hear words like orderly, efficient, and functional-not exactly high bars.

As Silver said in his closing address last Thursday: “It’s a record we can carry back to our districts with pride.”

No one argued with him.

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