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As Lawmakers Leave Albany, Some Items Unfinished

The New York State capitol in Albany
Dave Lucas

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed on three major items at the close of the legislative session. But they also left a lot of unfinished business on the table Friday.

Lawmakers made the most of the deals that they reached in the final days of the session.  Governor Cuomo announced an agreement on package of bills to combat heroin addiction.

“It is a bill that has been the top priority for me,” Cuomo said.

The new laws make it easier for addicts to get health insurances to pay for treatment, and increases penalties for dealers.

Cuomo and legislative leaders also appeared together after an accord on a limited medical marijuana program, where he touted what he said was the extraordinary  effort it took to reach the agreement. 

“This is probably one of the most difficult pieces of legislation that we’ve completed in four years,” the governor said.

The program will allow doctors authorized by the state health department to prescribe the drug to registered patients. Smoking of marijuana as a treatment will not be allowed, something advocates say is a major disappointment.

The bill passed in the Senate over the objections of several Senators, including the Chair of the Senate Health Committee, Kemp Hannon. Hannon says there’s a lack of medical evidence on the effectiveness of marijuana treatments, and no FDA approval for the drug, which is still illegal according to federal law.  He says heath department bureaucrats are going to make too many unqualified decisions and take too long,

“Give me a break,” Hannon said. “We’re not helping the people who came to ask us for help” .

The governor and lawmakers also agreed to delay some of the effects of the new Common Core standards for teachers. Teachers who receive a poor evaluation due to low scores by students on the new tests will not be penalized for another two years.

But there was little talk in the closing days of the session about several items  that Cuomo and other Democrats had made a priority.

The Dream Act, which would give college aid to children of undocumented immigrants, was voted down in the Senate in May and never revived.  The governor’s efforts to enact public campaign financing for statewide races only made it as far as pilot program for the state comptroller’s race, which was widely criticized as unworkable.

The governor, in exchange for winning the nomination of the left-leaning Working Families Party, promised to fight for those two measures, as well as a plan to allow local governments to set their own minimum wage higher than the state’s rate of around $9 an hour.

All three measures were blocked by Republicans in the State Senate. They rule the chamber with the help of a group of breakaway Democrats.

The failure to win the agreements should not seriously harm the governor, who faces reelection in the fall.  A poll conducted in the final weeks of the session finds Cuomo ahead of his nearest challenger by 36 points. Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for Siena College polling,  says the governor can always use his “bully pulpit” on the campaign trail.

“If things that the governor wants don’t happen, he  blames the legislature heading into election,” Greenberg said. “That’s a convincing argument to voters.”

Cuomo also promised the Working Families Party that he would work to restore Democrats to power in the chamber in order to achieve the progressive agenda items next year. That effort, if Cuomo follows through, will occur in the campaign season. Now that the session is over, the political season officially begins.