ALBANY – In the usual end-of-session rush, state lawmakers this week gave final approval to 144 bills.
Among them were increasing penalties for repeat drunken drivers, extending Buffalo’s bonding authority, making yogurt the official state snack and embracing a shark-protection bill by limiting the kinds of hooks used to catch the fish.
Lawmakers will return from their three-day weekend Monday for the final four days of the legislative session – a period with consequences that could affect hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers on everything from health to economic-development matters.
Legislators may decide whether medical marijuana is legalized, if a program encouraging development of abandoned industrial sites is extended and whether public school teachers will get any sort of relief, like their students, when it comes to using standardized tests based on Common Core to evaluate their classroom performance.
At stake, also, is how New York reacts to a growing problem of addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers, and if parents of children in private schools might get tax breaks or be eligible for new scholarship programs.
It has been an especially odd end of session, far quieter and, until now, with less deal-making and maneuvering than usual. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers have been doing their best to lower expectations of anything major happening during the week.
But Cuomo and lawmakers also want this session to clear the way to begin their re-election campaigns in earnest. Moreover, relations are a bit tense since Cuomo two weeks ago said he would, as bait to get the endorsement of the Working Families Party, work to oust Republicans from their partial control of the Senate.
The outstanding major issues are few, but not without major impact.
An unusual coalition of environmental and business interests is pushing for renewal, with some changes, of the state’s brownfields tax credit program, which has encouraged development of old manufacturing sites, abandoned gas stations and other shuttered structures, including in downtown Buffalo.
The governor has said the program does not expire until next year and so does not have to be dealt with this year, but the program’s provisions will discourage many developers from starting projects this year until they know how the state will treat brownfields development in the future.
With Cuomo up for re-election this year, Catholic Church leaders increased the pressure on him to live up to what they say was his promise to push for tax breaks to parents in private schools. A parent, or anyone, could donate to a nonprofit group that would, in turn, donate to a private or public school. While public school donations would count, the effort is being led by private schools, primarily those run by the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and spiritual leader of the state’s 2 million Catholics, issued a statement Wednesday, along with all the state’s bishops, that will appear in church bulletins across New York this Sunday. He noted the closure of 200 Catholic schools in New York over the last 15 years and said the proposed education investment tax credit would help stem that tide of shutdowns.
“Although Gov. Cuomo assured us he would fight to include the proposal in the state budget, in the end we were left out,” the cardinal says in his message to parishioners.
Also up in the air is legislation that would require all Buffalo children to attend kindergarten at age 5. A similar bill was approved this week for Utica.
The bill, backed by the Buffalo Public Schools, already has been approved in the Senate. Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said it would move 5-year-olds to kindergarten and out of programs such as Head Start and day care. “I just don’t know why it hasn’t gotten done yet, but I’m hopeful,” she said.
Efforts to legalize medical marijuana advanced with word Thursday from Cuomo and lawmakers that formal three-way talks among the governor, the Assembly and the Senate have begun to permit the drug to be dispensed to patients with certain health conditions or diseases. The measure, certain to pass in the Assembly where lawmakers have embraced the idea for years, got an additional boost with its elevation in the Senate to the Rules Committee, the final stopping point before a floor vote.
“We will have a final product in time for the end of this legislative session,’’ said Sen. Diane J. Savino, a Staten Island Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the measure. She has said 40 senators back her effort, and her bill is co-sponsored by several Republicans, including Western New York Sens. George D. Maziarz, of Newfane, and Mark J. Grisanti, of Buffalo.
Cuomo, who had been a staunch opponent of the idea, said in a public radio interview: “In concept, it’s a good idea.”
“We are not doing a lot of other bills, but medical marijuana is getting done this session,” said one Senate Republican speaking on condition of anonymity.
Cuomo said law enforcement has concerns about the bill. In a statement, Thomas H. Mungeer, president of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association, said that marijuana could have “medical value” for some patients but that legalizing it could create added burdens on police to distinguish between legal and illegal marijuana use.
Mungeer added that there is “widespread concern regarding the identification and expansion of the use of non-medical marijuana as well as the sharing of prescribed marijuana.”
Sources said the Cuomo advisers want specific training protocols for doctors who would be permitted to prescribe the drug. They also want only doctors who are legal residents of New York State and not, say, a doctor who lives in Connecticut but works in New York, to be able to participate in the program.
Savino said that none of the changes being sought by Cuomo would limit the availability of the drug to people who have one of the health conditions eligible to be treated with medical marijuana. The bill also would ban anyone younger than 21 from obtaining marijuana that has to be smoked; those patients will be eligible to obtain oil-based or spray compounds.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have authorized some form of medical marijuana.
Among the issues remaining is a push by the public school teachers union for a moratorium on teacher evaluations – which could be used for everything from training to firing teachers with poor classroom performance. The evaluations are based partly on student test scores in the Common Core curriculum. The program will not have an impact on students because it has been delayed while rollout problems are addressed. Teachers say they deserve the same treatment.
“I’m not in favor of a moratorium,” Cuomo said on “The Capitol Pressroom” radio program. He said he would be fine with “adjustments’’ to teacher evaluations so long as the program continues for them; he did not specifically describe what he meant.