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Session Leaves Cuomo's Agenda Unfinished

New York State Capitol in Albany

New York Governor Cuomo did not get all he wanted during the recently concluded legislative session, as abortion rights and campaign finance reform faltered in the final days of the session. But Cuomo seems to be putting the best face on what he did achieve and is trying to move on with plans that include an investigation of the legislature.

Governor Cuomo began the session back in January with a hefty agenda, including an ambitious plan to make New York’s gun control laws the toughest in the nation, and to be the first state to react to the Newtown Connecticut shootings in December.

“No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer,” he railed.

He also named several other progressive goals, including a call for raising the minimum wage, public financing of campaigns and a Women’s Equality Act that included an abortion rights provision.

“Because it’s her body, her choice,” he declared.

Cuomo rapidly checked off his first item on the list. The gun control measure was approved on the very first full day of the legislative session.  

And when the state budget was passed in late March, it included a minimum wage increase. There were some compromises made with Republicans in the State Senate.  It would be phased in over a three year period, and businesses would get subsidies to hire younger workers. 

But after the budget, the Senate GOP, fearful of backlash from their conservative base, drew a line in the sand over public campaign financing and a bill to codify into New York State law the abortion rights in the federal Roe v Wade decision.  And the governor seemed unable to cross it.

A group of breakaway Democrats who share power with the Republicans in the Senate, were also unable to convince their co leaders to take up either of the bills.  Independent Democratic Leader, Senator Jeff Klein, even sponsored a hostile amendment to try to bring the abortion bill to the floor.

But the amendment was rejected by all of the GOP Senators and two pro-life Democrats.

The Senate did pass the other provisions in the women’s equality act in separate bills, including pay equity and anti sexual harassment measures. But the State Assembly  passed  a different bill, that tied all of the items, including abortion rights, together. So in the end, nothing became law.

Overshadowing the entire session were multiple  corruption scandals. Two former Senate Democratic leaders were indicted on bribery and embezzlement charges, and the State Assembly was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal.  Others were under investigation or found to be wearing wires. US Attorney Preet Bharara, who brought many of the cases, painted a grim picture of state government.

“Many may understandably fear that there is no vote that is not for sale, no office without a price, and no official clean of corruption,” Bharara said in April.

Steve Greenberg, with Siena College polling, says the session has also seen Governor Cuomo’s approval ratings on a downward trajectory.  Cuomo has dropped nearly 15 points, from a 72 percent approval rating last December, to 58 percent in June. As the governor falls in the polls, he may look less formidable to lawmakers.

Greenberg says the constant corruption scandals, even though the governor has not been implicated in them, are taking their toll.

“He is, in essence, in charge of Albany, he’s the top elected official,” Greenberg said. “He’s the guy they know.”

Cuomo, for his part, has tried to shrug off his losses , saying it’s OK to overreach.

“If you get everything you want in a legislative session,  you probably didn’t ask for enough,” Cuomo said. “It was a very good session. Could we have done more? Yes.”  

The governor has been traveling the state in recent days, promoting a plan to enact tax free zones for businesses who locate at college campuses,  which he calls “a major initiative to jump start the upstate economy.”

Cuomo has tried to salvage his women’s agenda, asking the state Assembly to come back for a special session to act on the other items in the package that do not include abortion rights,  that the Senate already passed.

And he says since the legislature did not agree to campaign finance reform and other measures to address corruption, he’s going to investigate the legislature through the state’s Moreland Act powers.  Cuomo says he’ll soon appoint a panel that will probe candidates’ campaign filings at the State Board of Elections. The governor says it might even work out better.

“What would have been more effective, a Moreland or passing a bill, I’m not even sure,” Cuomo said. “History will have to tell us when we look back.”

The subject of scandals is not likely to fade from the public’s mind. U.S. Attorney Bharara has said to expect more indictments in the near future.