By Jessica Bakeman
ALBANY After weeks of wrangling over state budget details, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers will turn their attention to other legislative priorities, including a list of progressive social agenda items Cuomo pushed in his State of the State address in January.
Cuomo and legislative leaders rolled a minimum-wage increase and technical changes to the state's new gun-control law into the budget. But the spending plan did not include the establishment of upstate casinos, decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana or the legalization of mixed martial arts, although those issues were discussed during negotiations.
And Cuomo's "litmus test" of social issues remains to be addressed, particularly the 10-point so-called Women's Equality Act, which includes an abortion codification bill. The governor wrote in an op-ed last December that his approval of the bipartisan coalition that controls the Senate would be determined by lawmakers' support of his list of social priorities.
"I think there's still plenty of time," Sen. Jeffrey Klein, D-Bronx, said Tuesday during an interview with Gannett's Albany Bureau. "Our legislative process is not a sprint; it's a marathon. So we still have a long way to go before the end of session."
Klein heads the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, which shares control of the Senate with Republicans. He joined Cuomo, Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, as a fourth "man in the room" for recent budget negotiations.
In the budget, lawmakers enacted a three-year phase-in of a higher minimum wage, which Cuomo and other Democrats widely supported. But Republicans and business groups worried the hike would hurt the economy.
The minimum wage will jump from $7.25 an hour currently to $8.00 in 2014, $8.75 in 2015 and $9 in 2016.
"This budget raises the minimum wage to $9 an hour, because $7.25 an hour is just unfair, unlivable and unsustainable. It's the right thing to do and the fair thing to do," Cuomo said Friday in a video message touting the budget.
Cuomo had tried in the budget to reduce the penalty for public possession of small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation. His plan aims to reform New York City's "stop and frisk" policy, which critics argue targets young people and racial minorities.
He also attempted to reach an agreement with lawmakers on the location of potential casinos in New York. A constitutional amendment passed last year by the state Legislature and set for approval again this year would authorize up to seven casinos, but Cuomo wants to start with three upstate -- north of Putnam County. The amendment would also have to be passed in a public referendum.
Cuomo hopes establishing three casinos north of New York City will drive residents and tourists upstate, which has suffered populations losses and economic stagnation.
On "The Capitol Pressroom," a public radio show in Albany Wednesday, Cuomo included casinos on a short list of end-of-session priorities, but called the issue "important and difficult."
Talks of whether to legalize professional mixed martial arts entered the budget process, as well. Supporters argued that the sport is lucrative and would boost the economy, but opponents fought it, arguing that it's violent and dangerous, even with regulations.
Silver has opposed the sport in the past, but seemed to open the door earlier this month when he said: "I think, at some point, there will probably be an approval in this state. I can't tell you when."
Cuomo said Wednesday he's not morally opposed to mixed martial arts but wants to evaluate the potential economic impact before determining whether it's "worth it."
"I wouldn't put it up as a top priority," he said on the radio show. "If there is a plan that they put forth that has a significant economic benefit to the state, then I would take it up."
Among the social issues Cuomo will push through the end of the session are public campaign financing and women's rights legislation.
Democrats and advocacy groups have pushed for a public option modeled after New York City's, which matches small campaign donations at a 6-to-1 rate. The aim would be to "level the playing field" for non-wealthy candidates.
Cuomo has said he supports publicly financed elections, and he is also trying to reform the state's disclosure laws.
"Towards the end of session, you have campaign finance, which is important," Cuomo said on the radio show. "You have the women's agenda, which is very important to me, and I'm excited about it, and (it) has resonated with people across this state."
Cuomo said his description of the Women's Equality Act has elicited a standing ovation every time he's spoken about it around the state. The 10-point agenda includes a controversial bill that would codify federal abortion rights into state law. Pro-life groups argue the bill would expand access to abortion in the state and increase the incidence of late-term abortion.
Cuomo has not yet released his abortion bill, which he said is different than the Reproductive Health Act, a measure introduced in recent years that has been staunchly opposed by conservative groups and the Catholic church. Other bills in the Women's Equality Act would crack down on human trafficking, pregnancy discrimination, housing discrimination and pay inequity, among other issues.
"New York has the opportunity right now, in this nation, to change this conversation and look at ensuring that women can fully participate in our economy," said M. Tracey Brooks, executive director of the state Family Planning Advocates, the lobbying arm for Planned Parenthood in New York.
Jason McGuire, executive director of the conservative group, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, said earlier this month that Cuomo is hurting the chances of the other nine women's rights bills by packaging them with the controversial abortion measure.
"If the governor wanted to pass any one of those nine points through this Legislature, I guarantee you he can do it -- even all nine of them," McGuire said. "But he is holding all of it hostage to an abortion agenda, and that is what has to end."
Klein, who backs the measure, said he's unsure if it would pass in the 63-member Senate. It has enough votes to pass the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
"It's sort of up in the air," he said.
What's in the budget
- A three-year phase-in of a $9 an hour minimum wage.
- A $350 tax rebate for middle-class families with children.
- A $1 billion increase for schools, including funding for full-day pre-kindergarten in high-need districts.
- An extension of the "millionaire's tax," a higher income-tax rate on New Yorkers making $1 million or more.
- Tweaks to the state's gun control law, including a suspension of a ban on 10-bullet magazine sales.
- Changes to the law requiring teacher evaluations, including an amendment that lets plans roll over year-to-year unless they're renegotiated.
- Legislation determining placement of up to seven casinos in New York, pending approval from lawmakers and voters.
- A lift of the ban on mixed martial arts.
- Decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.
- Push for public campaign financing to "level the playing field" for non-wealthy public-office candidates.
- Debate on 10-point women's rights bill that would codify abortion rights, promote pay equity and crack down on housing discrimination.