- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - For decades, it was the way Albany did business: The governor and the two legislative bosses gathered behind closed doors to hammer out deals affecting millions of New Yorkers.

This year, that playbook was left tattered and stained by a series of corruption investigations that toppled two of the “three men in a room,” prompted the biggest leadership change in decades and left lawmakers looking for alternative ways to address the complicated needs of a big state.

The result has been a particularly difficult legislative session that saw the law governing the rents paid by more than 2 million tenants in and around New York City briefly expire when lawmakers blew through their own deadline. And when it came to addressing the problems at the center of Albany’s corruption - campaign finance and ethics rules - lawmakers were largely silent.

It’s not over yet. Lawmakers had hoped to adjourn for the year Wednesday but will stay in session through at least Tuesday as they struggle to reach a compromise on the revival and extension of the rent law.

“I don’t think there’s any blueprint to how session is ended,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said last week. Heastie took over from longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver in January after the Manhattan Democrat was arrested on charges that he accepted nearly $4 million in bribes.

A few months later, Senate Leader Dean Skelos, R-Long Island, stepped down from his leadership post when he was arrested on charges that he extorted payments and a job for his son from a major real-estate developer in exchange for his influence. He was replaced as leader by another Long Island Republican, John Flanagan.

The change in leadership exposed fault lines: Flanagan struggled to please upstate senators wary of another Long Islander. And Heastie was forced to deal with a large and sometimes fractious Democratic majority - many of whom said they were tired of the top-down approach to government.

The nature of the charges against Silver and Skelos made the rent law and other issues relating to real estate particularly vexing. Millions of dollars in contributions from New York City real estate interests, mainly funneled through LLCs, were cited in the cases against both men. Skelos is accused of accepting large donations from one developer - a big donor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo - in exchange for his influence over real-estate issues.

Despite the change in leadership and cries for ethics reform, the corruption scandals did little to fundamentally change how deals get cut in Albany. Flanagan, Heastie and Cuomo still meet behind closed doors. Rank-and-file lawmakers still don’t often know the details of the negotiations until a deal is announced. And the legislative response to the scandals was modest at best, including a new requirement for lawmakers to disclose their outside income and identify most big legal clients. Larger reforms sought by good government groups went nowhere.

“Dysfunction is back in Albany, if it ever left,” said Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio. “Nothing has changed. The way Albany operates … it seems to be almost biological. It’s part of the DNA and the culture of the place.”

Heastie and Flanagan say they have tried to take a more collaborative approach since taking the reins. Heastie especially seldom weighs in on any issue without speaking with his conference.

“I think our house got back on its feet after the leadership change very quickly,” said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, the longest-serving lawmaker in the Assembly.

Even though the session remains unsettled, Flanagan insisted Thursday that it has been a success for the Senate, which saw many of its priorities included in the state budget: no tax increases, help for businesses and state aid for suburban schools.

“We did a whole litany of other things that I believe will be strongly supported by taxpayers,” Flanagan told reporters after a private meeting with Cuomo.

The Democratic governor, meanwhile, faced his own personal challenges this year. His father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, died in January and his live-in girlfriend, Food Network star Sandra Lee, had breast cancer surgery last month. He also saw his approval ratings drop to their lowest.

But the biggest loser in this year’s session could end up being New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who saw his liberal agenda all but ignored in Albany. His call to raise the minimum wage and to pass the Dream Act, which would extend financial aid to students in the country illegally, went unheard, and his biggest priorities - stronger rent laws, changes to the development tax break and the continuation of his control of city schools - remain unsettled in the session’s final days.

In that respect, it’s also typical Albany, where lawmakers usually wait until the final days to make their biggest decision. On Thursday, Cuomo had to issue a “message of necessity” so lawmakers could approve a five-day extension of the rent laws without violating legislative rules about allowing bills to age before being considered.

“NYC rent control been an issue since session started,” tweeted Assemblyman James Tedisco, a Schenectady County Republican. “Shameful!!!!”

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