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Tough choices faced by NYS lawmakers as they start new session


The new year dawns with political storm clouds bearing down on New York lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The New York City subway system, beset by breakdowns and delays, needs a massive investment. The upcoming corruption trial of a former top Cuomo adviser threatens to dim the Democrat's presidential chances. The state faces a $4 billion deficit, while ongoing conflicts with Republicans in Washington mean the state could lose even more health care funding. Then this fall, Cuomo and the entire Legislature face re-election. 

It all adds up to a year of political maneuvering, tough choices and no easy answers. 

"Extremely difficult,'' is the prediction from Sen. David Carlucci, a Rockland County Democrat. "The most important thing we can do is try to put the politics aside, at least for six months.'' 

The work gets underway Wednesday when the Legislature reconvenes and Cuomo delivers his state of the state address. 

Big issues for the year include a contentious bill that would extend the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases to allow victims to sue for decades-old abuse, a proposal long opposed by the Catholic Church and other institutions. 

Lawmakers are also expected to take up measures to require greater disclosure when it comes to the groups paying for online political ads, and possible changes to state voting laws to make it easier for New Yorkers to cast ballots. 

The year's toughest challenges are likely to be financial. Following a few years of relative fiscal stability thanks to the economic recovery and bank settlements following the financial collapse, New York is staring down a budget deficit of more than $4 billion, an amount that could be grow because of cuts in federal health care spending and the tax overhaul. 

With elections in the fall, tax increases are likely to be a last resort for lawmakers looking to balance the more than $150 billion spending plan. 

"The last thing upstate's economy, its employers or its residents can endure are any additions to our already suffocating tax climate,'' said Greg Biryla, executive director of the economic advocacy group Unshackle Upstate. 

Republicans, who control the state Senate, will focus on ensuring existing funds are being spent effectively, according to Senate Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican. He said they'll also push to make an existing cap on tax increases permanent. 

"I want to look at every tax dollar we spend,'' he said. 

The state's long-term fiscal outlook gets bleaker still when major needs like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are added to the balance sheet. New York's subways, suffering from decades of relative financial neglect, require billions of dollars for equipment upgrades and repairs. City officials, Cuomo and lawmakers have blamed each other while the country's largest mass transit system continues to languish, forcing commuters to put up with chronic delays, breakdowns and service interruptions. 

"The finger-pointing has to stop,'' Cuomo said, before pointing his own squarely at lawmakers: "If the Legislature does nothing, they're driving the train.'' 

The MTA is only one of the potential pitfalls waiting for Cuomo. Former top aide Joe Percoco, who Cuomo once likened to a brother, is scheduled to go on trial in late January in a federal bribery case involving Cuomo's high-profile economic development programs. The case, likely to highlight Albany's chronic insider, pay-to-play culture, comes at a bad time for the governor, who is running for a third term in 2018 and is widely considered a possible candidate for president in 2020. 

The state will also be buffeted by strong winds from Washington and beyond. Democrats say they'll look for ways to push back on attempts by President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans to curb immigration or roll back environmental protections. 

"We will do everything in our power to protect New York families from Washington's greedy, shameless and misguided policies,'' said Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. 

The national attention on sexual misconduct, meanwhile, is prompting bipartisan calls for new laws to combat harassment and wrongdoing in the workplace, in government and society. 

Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, is the sponsor of a proposal that would expand the legal definition of workplace harassment and prohibit confidential settlements as a way to encourage companies to adopt a tougher stance on the problem. Young said the idea is to "help prevent harassment, punish abusers and protect victims.''

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