Race to exit
It was just before 7 p.m. Friday at the state Capitol when this year’s edition of the political deal known as a “Big Ugly” reared its head.
The first major component of a multifaceted agreement to close down the 2016 legislative session included a five-part package with broader pension-stripping for corrupt public officials, expanded lobbying laws and tighter controls on so-called “independent expenditure” campaigns.
“Together, this legislation will help bring more transparency, trust and faith to state government,” said a statement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who with the Legislature faced intense pressure to pass some kind of ethics reform after the back-to-back convictions last year of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
Less than an hour later, Cuomo and legislative leaders announced linked deals on other big-ticket items that had been stalled all week: Mayoral control of New York City schools will be extended by a year, school districts statewide will be required to test their water supply for lead, and the board of the New York Racing Association, which runs thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs as well as Belmont and Aqueduct, will stay under state control for another year.
Also tucked into the legislative language was an extension of the deadline for schools to implement a teacher evaluation system or risk state funding. The deadline will be pushed from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31.
With hours to go before the new-minted legislation could be printed, discussed in closed-door conferences, debated in each chamber and voted on — and maybe even read, or at least skimmed — lawmakers in the Democrat-dominated Assembly and Republican-led Senate settled in for what was sure to be a very long night.
Still, many weary legislators and aides said, it was better than having to return to the Capitol next week.
The ethics agreement will also expand disclosure requirements by political consultants who do work for elected officials as well as for clients with business before the state or local governments, and increase the number of donors to groups that perform lobbying who will be required to disclose their identities. The deal will also prevent nonprofit groups that maintain educational as well as advocacy operations from switching funds between them in a way that conceals the source of funding.
The agreement also ends an effort by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics to require reporting of communications between public relations firms and editorial boards — a recent opinion by the watchdog entity that had drawn strong criticism from journalists and a lawsuit from a coalition of leading public relations firms.
It will also bring about the end of so-called “ghost committees,” or political campaigns maintained in the names of lawmakers who have died. Under the deal, the panels would have two years after the death of the politician to wind down operations and distribute their funds.
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a leading good-government advocate, said while the package contained many worthy elements, it failed to address the root causes of corruption in New York state — such as the so-called limited liability company loophole that allows business that control multiple LLCs to boost the force of their political giving far beyond the donation limits for individuals or other kinds of businesses.
“This package deals with a lot of different issues, many of which are important, but it doesn’t deal with at the heart what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called a culture of corruption in Albany, and that’s about using your public office for private gain,” Horner said.
“The public doesn’t believe that the corruption (in New York) has to do with independent expenditure campaigns,” said Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York. “It has to do with the behavior of legislators.”
While the day was driven by the will-they-or-won’t-they questions surrounding the Big Ugly, lawmakers buckled down on a range of issues.
The Assembly approved a package of three anti-heroin bills that had been agreed to earlier in the week, sending them on to the governor’s desk.
A key provision of the package allows people needing substance abuse treatment to get immediate access to inpatient services, without waiting for insurance company authorization. Insurance companies would be barred for 14 days from conducting a review that could result in a denial of coverage.
The legislation also includes provisions that doctors had opposed as impingements on their practice, including a limit on opioid prescriptions for acute pain to a seven-day supply. Hospitals will be required to provide discharge planning for people admitted to the emergency room after an overdose.
The Assembly also gave final approval to an omnibus bill that addresses a myriad of state alcohol laws. Included in that legislation was language from the so-called “brunch bill,” which will allow bars and restaurants to serve alcoholic beverages beginning at 10 a.m. on Sundays, two hours earlier than current law allows. Establishments outside of New York City also will be able to apply to serve alcohol as early as 8 a.m. for up to 12 occasions per year.
Legislation extending the city of Albany’s residential parking permit system for two years received final passage as well, sending it on to the governor’s desk. The system covers the neighborhoods within a three-quarter-mile radius of the Empire State Plaza.
The program was introduced in 2010 to ease the competition for spots between residents and state workers during the day.
In a subtly more surprising turn of events, both houses cleared a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to use ticket “bots” — software that allows a single buyer to scoop up numerous event tickets at once.
While using ticket bots to get around security measures in place on ticket vendors’ websites can result in a fine, the new legislation ups the civil penalties and creates a misdemeanor crime. It also expands the law’s reach to include anyone who knowingly resells or offers to resell tickets purchased with a bot.
As of 11 p.m., it was still unclear if there would be a vote in the Senate on the legalization of online daily fantasy sports betting.
The legislation passed the Assembly earlier in the day.
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