Overtime in Albany: Closed-Door Sessions Take on Big-Ticket Items

Sarah Laskow | June 23rd, 2011

For two days now, the three most important people in Albany — Andrew Cuomo, Dean Skelos, and Sheldon Silver — have been retreating behind closed doors for marathon sessions of haggling. They emerge every once in awhile to toss a bone to the gathered throng of reporters. It’s usually Skelos or Silver or both who speak; Cuomo has been more reticent, although last night he allowed that “no obstacles” to same-sex marriage have arisen. They’re still working on it.

As politicians dribble legislation around, everyone is losing stamina. These are long nights. Some legislators, The New York Times noted, are running out of clean clothes. Skelos looks tired. Every time he emerges to speak to the press the bags under his eyes seem darker.

Getting pieces of legislation through at this point means tweaking details, throwing in less-considered language, making laws strung with important clauses that no one will notice until their impact sneaks up. No one can guarantee that same-sex marriage will pass, but other big ticket items — rent regulation, a property tax cap, mandate relief, and tuition bumps for SUNY and CUNY schools — should go through.

The bills laying out the principles that negotiators have agreed on, though, have yet to come out. The press has been given the outlines of the deal: Rent regulation will be renewed for four years. Apartments will not exit the system until their monthly rent tops $2,500 and their occupants’ income tops $200,000. In some buildings, landlords will be able to pass on a smaller portion of renovations to newly entering tenants. SUNY and CUNY schools will be able to raise tuition by $300 a year for five years. The property tax cap will be at 2 percent, also for five years, with limited carve outs for pension spikes.

But that’s just what reporters have been told. Until the bills come out, with the legal language available to read, that’s all the information available. But if it were that simple, the bill containing these provisions could have been printed and voted on by now. They’re talking about something in those long meetings! By the time the bills do come out, legislators and reporters, advocates and aides will be ready to crash.

Deadlines can be motivating. The deal on the property tax cap, for instance, does appear to have changed much in the past few months. Why wait to vote on it, then? The end of session deadline means that legislators can use that piece of lawmaking as a tool to bargain on other measures — with more on the table, there’s more to haggle over. Everyone wants to get home and bask in the summer heat, but since there’s a deadline, to pass nothing would be to admit failure.

But deadlines can also be too motivating. Students might tell themselves that the conclusion they wrote at 5 a.m. the night before a 25-page paper is due ranks among the most brilliant, beautiful pieces of writing they’ve done. But inevitably, after 10 hours of sleep or so, it’s clear that it’s only passing. At least, though, it’s finished. Lawmaking works in the same way. At least lawmakers will be finished. Will the laws be any good? We can hope they’ll at least get a passing grade.