ALBANY – The 2014 legislative session ended Friday in a bill-passing flurry, with lawmakers giving final approval to measures legalizing medical marijuana, providing tax breaks for developers of abandoned industrial sites and letting people ticketed for driving violations in Buffalo plea-bargain their way to lesser penalties.
Despite some high-profile issues being addressed this year, the 2014 session will, seemingly by design in this election-year season, not be remembered in Albany’s legislative history for boldness. For many advocates on the right, center and left, 2014 came up far short in addressing a number of long-standing issues facing the state.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had a far different take Friday, calling the 2014 session “really extraordinary in many, many ways.”
“We got a lot of important work done at a difficult time,” he said, alluding to the backdrop of the fall elections for himself and all lawmakers that hung over the session.
In Albany’s better-later-than-early tradition, lawmakers in the last two weeks gave final passage to more than 550 bills – five times the amount they approved from Jan. 8 through June 3.
In the final 24 hours, those bills ranged from the lesser noticed – legalization of sale of sparklers and limiting the brightness levels of outdoor lights on state buildings – to the higher-profile measures, such as delaying a program to evaluate the performance of public school teachers.
While the governor and lawmakers have promoted the budget and policy accomplishments – big aid hikes for schools and some additional property tax relief – some groups Friday were less than impressed.
Women’s groups were unhappy another year went by without passage of a package of bills – aimed at everything from targeting the sex-trafficking industry to expanding abortion access. Catholic Church leaders criticized Cuomo and legislators for failing to create a tax-break program for scholarships of students attending private schools.
“I think, overall, it’s a swing and a miss,” said Brian Sampson, executive director of UnShackle Upstate, a business group. He said Albany targeted tax breaks for larger companies but did not do enough for small firms. And, he added, Cuomo and lawmakers left town without embracing major relief on costly state-imposed mandates.
“Everything until now has been window dressing,” he said of mandate-relief efforts to help localities reduce expenses and property taxes.
A measure to legalize marijuana for patients suffering from certain chronic, serious illnesses and conditions got final approval in the State Senate on Friday, paving the way for New York to become the nation’s 23rd state to approve medicinal marijuana.
The bill was approved at about 3 a.m. in the Assembly by a vote of 117-13 and in afternoon by the Senate by a vote of 49-10. The measure will be signed by Cuomo.
Depending on who is talking, the bill was either greatly watered down in ways that will limit the kinds of patients eligible for the drug and make it more expensive for users, or greatly strengthened to provide more controls to ensure public health and safety goals are protected over what Cuomo has called a “gateway” drug to stronger narcotics.
The measure lets doctors prescribe the drug in nonsmokable formats only, which means pills or oil-based forms. The Cuomo administration said marijuana smoke has some of the same “toxic mixture” of dangerous particulates as smoking cigarettes and would undermine efforts to curtail broader smoking rates in the state.
Covered diseases include cancer, AIDS and epilepsy; though the program ends in seven years unless extended. Cuomo also has the power to unilaterally end the program at a moment’s notice if he deems it is not working properly.
The final deal gives broad powers to the state Health Department to oversee the program, including coming up with dosage levels and expanding the eligible diseases and conditions. Lawmakers on the Senate floor Friday voiced concern that it will take 18 months – and advocates say it likely will be much longer – before the medical marijuana program will begin, leaving no immediate solutions for parents of children with rare seizure disorders who have been lobbying to get quick access to an oil-based form of marijuana that, in Colorado, has shown some relief for such patients.
The issue has been embraced for years in the Democratic-controlled Assembly but blocked by Republicans in the Senate. This year, a group of breakaway Democrats who partially control the Senate with Republicans pushed the issue hard, and were joined in recent weeks by a handful of Republican senators.
All Western New York senators voted for the bill and, in the Assembly, the measure had two opponents: Republicans David DiPietro of East Aurora and Andy Goodell of Jamestown.
The Senate on Friday also gave final approval to a number of other measures, including adding 20 Family Court judges around the state, including in Erie County. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Bonacic noted the Family Court system handles 700,000 cases with 153 judges.
The Senate and Assembly also agreed to extend until March 31, 2017 a program to give tax breaks to developers who clean and rebuild abandoned, mostly industrial sites; that program was set to expire at the end of next year.
Cuomo has previously said the matter could wait until next year but advocates said an extension was needed now to prevent a chilling impact on new development of eligible sites. The brownfields program awards lucrative tax incentives to developers, but they are not eligible to receive them until projects are complete; development of brownfields takes, on average, about three years, so advocates said investors would not have started new work not knowing if the program was going to be extended next year.
Critics contend the program has been abused by developers and corporations that would have gone ahead with projects without the tax breaks. They have cited beneficiaries stretching from a Ritz Carlton hotel, Manhattan office buildings and a power plant near Albany. The program originally was intended to serve especially blighted areas of the state.
“It is smart growth, smart economics. Yes, it has problems, but it’s still working,” said Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican and sponsor of the extension bill. “If this program would expire, it would be devastating for communities statewide,” he added.
But Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said there is a $3.3 billion state liability for brownfields projects in the pipeline and that 60 percent of the approved projects have been in areas of the state where poverty rates run near 20 percent of the population.
“We had another year to get it right … I just don’t understand why we can’t do the right thing,” she said.
Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said the brownfields program has been “critically important” for Western New York. “This is a foundational pillar in our economic revitalization,” she said of projects like Riverbend that are brownfield sites. “That would not have been possible without the brownfield program,” she said.
In all, she said 34 projects around the Buffalo area have used the program to redevelop abandoned sites, leveraging more than $700 million in private investment dollars.