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More work remains for Albany lawmakers

The state legislature ended its session in an orderly fashion for the first time in decades, but  the lack of last minute negotiations means that some issues were left unresolved, and it’s likely that lawmakers will be back at the Capitol later this year.

Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders took a victory lap as the session wound down to a close.

“I believe that this legislative session is one of the most successful in modern political history,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo included in his list of accomplishments agreements that were achieved during an all night session in mid March, like pension reform that sets new, lowered benefits for future public workers, and DNA data base expansion.

Cuomo was criticized for issuing special messages to allow the bills to pass instantly, without any public scrutiny. This time, the governor made clear he would not do that, and would allow the bills to be made public during the legal three day waiting period before they can be voted on by the legislature.

The strategy succeeded when it came to a bill to regulate the public disclosure of teacher evaluations. Cuomo put out his own bill at midnight on Monday, and essentially told the legislature to take it or leave it.

The Assembly immediately agreed to accept the bill . The Senate hesitated, then on the final day agreed to the measure, which was backed by teachers unions.

“I think they did the exact right thing in passing the bill,” Cuomo said.

The governor did not have as much luck convincing Senate Republicans to agree to decriminalize public possession of small amounts of marijuana.  Cuomo says the GOP was under political pressure not to act.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos  acknowledges that the state’s Conservative Party, which cross endorses many GOP Senators for reelection, is against the measure, but he says he was opposed before that because the amount 25 grams, is set too high.  

“That’s 63 joints,” Skelos said.

The governor says he hasn’t given up on the matter, and believes that with more explaining and education, more conservative upstate voters and their representatives might be more open to the idea.

“You have old folks like me who say ‘Woah, decriminalization of marijuana, what are you saying’,” Cuomo said.

“Everyone is going to go around smoking marijuana and that’s okay?’”.

Senator Skelos has offered what could be some grounds for a deal, saying he’d like to see the drug known as bath salts and synthetic pot criminalized.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has predicted that  the Senate will be back to act on an issue the Speaker has championed, raising the state’s minimum wage.

“We have always come back during the course of the year,” Silver said. “We’re always available.”

When the talk turns to a session later in the year the elephant in the room is whether lawmakers will grant themselves a pay raise. They have not had one since 1998.

Their base pay is $79,500 but many receive extra stipends for leadership posts or committee chairs.

Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders deny that they are currently talking about a pay raise, but none have ruled it out.  Speaker Silver has consistently maintained, though that lawmakers “deserve” a pay raise.

“I’ve said that for the last several years, to no avail,” Silver said.

Lawmakers may hope that the orderly end to the session, with no outward signs of the dysfunction that has made the state Capitol infamous, will help make their case that they deserve more money.


Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.