Assembly approves remaining budget bills after hours of ‘Raise the Age’ debate
ALBANY — As the state Assembly finished action on the 2017-2018 budget Saturday evening, dozens of members — cooped up in Albany for at least 13 days — rushed out of the chamber before the final vote tally was announced.
Most of their day was spent debating a “big ugly” revenue language bill that dealt with dozens of Issues like authorizing ride-hailing services, subsidizing tuition at state schools, reviving the 421-a tax credit and expanding Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s power to make mid-year budget adjustments.
But even over the course of a six-and-a-half-hour debate, each of these issues took a backseat to increasing the age of criminal responsibility for most offenses from 16 to 18.
More than half the debate was focused on that topic. And as Democrats in the chamber lauded it, they cheered equally loudly for Speaker Carl Heastie, who led his conference’s push on the issue through a grueling two-week final stretch during which they were routinely subjected to anonymous attacks.
After the revenue bill was approved by a 98-33 vote, the house turned to a state operations budget bill that passed in 13 minutes. Few members bothered debating it, though Assemblyman David DiPietro, a Republican from Erie County, did use floor time to compare the 2013 SAFE Act to “Germany in 1944.”
Most of the discussion on the revenue bill focused on clarifying what exactly was in the 343-page omnibus legislation, which was released around 4:15 a.m. — just over four hours before lawmakers began to vote on it.
To several critics, the final product was confusing.
“As a retired criminal court judge for 14 years, I find the compromises extremely convoluted,” said Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, a Republican from Niagara County. “I just firmly believe that these could have been accomplished everything that needed to be done – there are provisions that are in place, there are programs in place already, that we may have been able to look at.”
One common critique was language in the bill that some Republicans deemed poorly-written. For example, judges can only grant some cases be heard in criminal courts under “extraordinary circumstances” — a term that wasn’t defined.
“Maybe we can take a quick adjournment and conference it and try to iron out the wrinkles,” Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, a Republican from Long Island, joked.
“We just ran into a problem with getting a bill done with those terms,” said Assemblyman Joe Lentol, a Democrat from Brooklyn who chairs the chamber’s codes committee and was a principal negotiator on the issue.
When Democrats rose to speak on the bill it was usually to toss softball questions at Lentol and almost always included a dollop of praise for Heastie. On several occasions, they also lambasted the speaker’s negotiating partners.
“We have a governor who unfortunately empowers the other party on the other side,” said Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, a Democrat from Brooklyn, in reference to the state Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference. “He’s giving thanks to a party who had nothing to do with the negotiations. Nothing! Everything started here. We are the people of the house. It was Carl Heastie, the speaker, who led this bill to become a historic victory.”
“My gratitude to Speaker Carl Heastie, who every time we walk up this hill to this remarkable and audacious Capitol, my heart is filled with pride that there is a black man, the only black speaker we have in the country right now, who put his legacy on the line for us to get Raise the Age accomplished,” said Assemblyman Michael Blake, a Democrat from the Bronx. “I refuse to allow Governor Cuomo’s examples of these young people, youth with knives that slash people, or the Independent Democratic Conference, that wouldn’t push back against some of Draconian proposals that were put before us, to take credit. It’s not just about putting out a press release … It’s about standing up at times you have to stand up.”
Democrats’ citicisms of Cuomo creeped into other discussions, too.
“[T]his is more like a college unaffordability plan that the governor has put forth today,” Assemblyman James Skoufis, a 29-year-old legislator from the Hudson Valley, said of language that will subsidize tuition for some attendees at SUNY and CUNY. “This proposal is a lot more interested in headlines than in actually making college more affordable.
At one point, attacks on the governor became so frequent that a brief conference was called to tell members to back off. Lentol was the only member to defend Cuomo.
“I thank Gov. Cuomo for his leadership,” he said. “I was in the room; you weren’t. He did take a leadership role in making sure these negotiations did not crash.”
Raising the age crept up even as other issues were being discussed. (“Literally, two years after committing a sexual offense, that 17 year-old could be behind the wheel driving for Uber or Lyft,” Assemblyman Dean Murray, a Republican from Long Island, said about ride-hailing language that prohibits some people from serving as drivers).
Most other major issues only attracted a couple of critics.
Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a Republican from suburban Troy, lambasted a provision to encourage municipalities to share services, saying it was unlikely to result in any real savings since localities are “already squeezing as much blood out of that stone as they can.”
“This, folks, is what the governor said is ‘political accountability on steroids,’” McLaughlin said. “It isn’t even accountability on Flintstone Vitamins. And not even like Fred and Barney, like Bamm-Bamm.”
Assemblyman Dan Quart, a Democrat from Manhattan’s East Side, said a new inspector general of transportation violated the constitutional separation of powers and could face a stiff challenge in the courts. Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, the only Democrat to vote no, lambasted language in the 421-a renewal that he said was written in such a way as to recreate an old racial red-line along W. 96th St. — the middle of his Upper West Side district.
Few members touched on other provisions of the legislation, which they were only able to fully digest in the dawn hours. Only Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Republican from Jamestown, brought up Part XXX — which contains language on page 269 granting the governor more power to adjust the state spending plan in response to federal cuts.
The bill specifies that the federal trigger must be either $850 million related to the Medicaid program, or $850 million in some other area. As Cuomo said Friday evening, his budget director could prepare a plan for cuts and give it to the Legislature.
“Upon such submission, the legislature shall have 90 days after such submission to either prepare its own plan, which may be adopted by concurrent resolution passed by both houses,” the bill states. “Or if after 90 days the legislature fails to adopt their own plan, the reductions to the general fund and state special revenue fund appropriations and related disbursements identified in the division of the budget plan will go into effect automatically.”
And some of the bill’s sections containing provisions that would usually warrant a lengthy debate if they came up as stand-alones didn’t come up at all.
Part UUU would require the Empire State Development corporation to prepare an annual report detailing how much its spends on incentives. This falls short of the “database of deals” sought by advocates, modeled off of systems in place in other states.
State agencies that may currently use design-build contracting will be authorized to do so for another four years, according to Part RRR, for projects costing more than $10 million.
Design-build will not be extended to counties or New York City, but it is specifically authorized for eight projects: the redevelopment of the Frontier Town property in the Adirondacks, new public health and forensics laboratories in the Capital Region, improvements at the state fairgrounds in Syracuse and upgrades at four state-run ski resorts: Belleayre, Whiteface, Gore and Mt. Van Hoevenberg.
Part DDD of the bill creates a tax credit for farmers who donate surplus wares to food banks.
Other measures were buried once and for all, including Cuomo’s proposal to have large Internet marketplaces like eBay or Amazon start collecting state sales tax. The proposal was favored by the Retail Council of New York State, but the Internet Association cheered its demise.
But after Saturday’s marathon session, final approval on the 10-bill, $153.1 billion spending plan is in sight. The state Senate is scheduled to hold a session at 5 p.m. Sunday to consider three remaining bills — including the “big ugly.”
“Big ugly, small ugly, ugly ugly, this has been an experience,” said Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, a Harlem Democrat weathering her first state budget.
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