NY lawmakers brace for end-of-session flurry

ALBANY - What does the sales tax in upstate counties have to do with who controls New York City schools?

When the state's legislative session winds down to its final days -- everything.

State lawmakers in recent days have passed hundreds of bills of varying importance as they try to close down their annual session at the Capitol on June 21, as scheduled.

Several issues still loom, however. And the legislative maneuvering and horse trading has begun.

For example, advocates are pushing for stronger oversight of the state's economic-development programs, as well as new ethics reforms.

But many of the major priorities of Gov. Andrew Cuomo were resolved during the budget process in April, such as free SUNY tuition and an increase in school aid. So the sides aren't expecting packages of major legislation before session breaks for the year.

Local sales tax

Still, dozens of counties and cities need state lawmakers to pass routine, biennial bills by November in order for them to maintain their sales-tax rates, which has major budgetary impacts for local governments across the state.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, is seeking an extension of mayoral control of the city's school system, which is scheduled to expire this month.

So Assembly Democrats -- knowing their Republican colleagues in the Senate frequently clash with de Blasio -- have linked the two issues, putting them together in a single bill in an attempt to force the GOP to approve both.

The GOP-led Senate, meanwhile, has countered, linking mayoral control to an expansion of charter schools and the creation of a tax credit for those who donate to private schools -- measures that have encountered Democratic opposition.

"It really becomes a very dangerous precedent here," said Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties, which has been critical of the Assembly package.

"We're trying to avoid pitting one area of the state against another area of the state."

Bills galore

Lawmakers are scheduled to be at the Capitol for seven working days before the end of session, which can easily be extended past its scheduled June 21 end date.

The final weeks of the session are traditionally a flurry of activity, with lawmakers eager to squeeze in their pet bills before recessing for the year.

Last year, for example, 2,035 passed at least one house of the Legislature. Of those, 1,354 were approved in June.
Each day, the Senate and Assembly will vote on dozens of bills that range from the hyperlocal -- such as the renaming of a highway or street -- to the more consequential, such as a measure approved Thursday that will ban marriage for those under the age of 17.

"There’s still a lot of bills that members feel are priorities to them that they’d like to get passed, and that’s what we’re concentrating on," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said Wednesday.

What's left
Asked what his priority is for the session's final weeks, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, said: "End on June 21, do the people's business."

"We have a lot of local bills that are very important to members that are not just related to things like sales tax -- quality of life stuff," Flanagan said. "We still have a decent amount of work to do."

The sales-tax issue remains unresolved.

County governments are required to periodically get the Legislature's approval in order to charge a local sales-tax rate of more than 3 percent. Nearly all do, with most bumping their rate up to 4 percent to match the state sales tax.

Cities and towns who charge various taxes -- including a sales or mortgage recording tax -- need similar approval.
Generally, the Legislature approves those requests every two years. Dozens of those requests are up for renewal this year, including the sales tax in the counties of Monroe, Rockland, Broome, Chemung and Tompkins and the cities of New Rochelle and Yonkers.

Local issues await

The bills has a major budgetary impact for counties and other local governments that rely on sales tax revenue to make ends meet.

The Democrat-led Assembly approved a single bill with all of the tax extenders in late May.

But the bill also included a two-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, an attempt to force Senate Republicans -- who have frequently clashed with de Blasio after he tried to oust them at the ballot box in 2014 -- into approving a measure they otherwise find unpalatable.

At the time, Heastie said the two issues are "critical".

"Cities and counties rely on these taxes to continue operating and New York City schools need the continuity and predictability that mayoral control offers," he said.

Asked whether he would support linking the sales-tax extension to mayoral control, Flanagan said simply: "No."

Reforms sought

Sen. George Latimer, D-Rye, Westchester County, said the state's strategy for dealing with the sales-tax extenders needs to change.

The votes are often a political liability for lawmakers. Political opponents often accuse them of voting for dozens of tax hikes when they approve the measures, since the sales tax would revert to a lower rate if they were to fail.
"I obviously run the risk of somebody saying George Latimer voted 88 times for taxes," said Latimer, who is running for Westchester County executive. "But if we don't get this right, then we're playing politics with our local governments."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, has proposed his own solution.

On Monday, he introduced a bill that would allow counties and local governments to extend their own sales-tax rates every two years rather than seeking the state Legislature's approval.

If a county wanted to increase their rate, then the Legislature would need to act.

"It's a common sense measure that will give local governments peace of mind and allow them to plan, while also preserving checks and balances to help ensure that any sales tax increase is scrutinized and well-considered," Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said.

It's unclear whether the bill will gain any traction before the end of session, however.

The bill currently sits in the Senate Rules Committee. It hasn't been introduced in the Assembly.

 

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