- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - As the 2015 legislative session ended in overtime last week, many New York lawmakers claimed at least partial victory for their constituents with rent controls and property tax breaks.

Some grumbled about missed ethics reforms in the six-month session that saw leaders of the Senate and Assembly benched by kickback scandals. Other unpassed bills would have raised the minimum wage, legalized mixed martial arts, rolled back part of New York’s gun-control law, prohibited discrimination based on gender orientation and raised the criminal age of responsibility from 16 to 18.

Another measure that did pass will impose a new campus sexual assault policy on the New York’s private colleges and universities. It says that consent requires clear, affirmative agreement between sex partners while also clarifying assault victims’ rights. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that may be the most important measure passed, a possible model for other states, to address a major and under-reported problem that schools don’t want to talk about.

The rent controls affecting more than two million tenants, which expired briefly, were extended four more years. The new law raises by $200 to $2,700 the regulated monthly rent threshold for apartments that landlords can move to market rates when they become vacant. The next three years the threshold would increase annually, indexed to the most recent year’s adjustment.

“This is what gives us affordable housing in New York City,” Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat, said. “I’m pleased we did make some mild improvements.”

Affected tenants felt like they were being held “in a mass hostage crisis” in Albany where they could lose old protections, Dinowitz said.

The statewide property tax cap, likewise extended, was topped by tax rebates for an estimated 2.5 million homeowners. Starting at $185 the first year on Long Island and upstate, rebates later will be based on a sliding scale inverse to income. They were projected to rise to an average credit of $532 in the fourth year, costing $1.3 billion.

Republican lawmakers in the Senate majority and Assembly minority said those were key measures adopted Thursday night in the last-minute omnibus bill that also contained the rent protections that were the main concern of the Assembly’s majority Democrats.

Negotiating that bill kept the Legislature in session a week longer than scheduled.

“New relief for middle-class homeowners, extension of the landmark property tax levy cap, and constructive education reforms … all represent significant wins on issues important to the people of my district,” Sen. James Seward, an Oneonta Republican, said Friday.

Assemblyman David Buchwald, a Westchester Democrat, said the education changes marked meaningful progress, including some public disclosure of test questions and an authorized re-evaluation of the Common Core curriculum.

The fourth major provision in the last-minute bill extends for four years tax breaks for residential developers in New York City that include some affordable housing. It includes a requirement that real estate and labor interests reach agreement within six months on construction wages. The program costs New York City tax coffers more than $1 billion a year for building 155,000 units including almost 13,000 deemed affordable that aren’t for many people, said Assemblyman Charles Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio advocated changes that were incorporated into the law that are expected to create 24,000 affordable units over the next 10 years, lowering the city subsidy and lowest applicable income levels, according to his office.

“Albany came up short,” said Sen. Daniel Squadron, a Manhattan Democrat. He said the rent law had slight improvements in protections against landlord harassment and rent increases for capital improvements also, but it failed to end vacancy decontrol and vacancy rent increases. Squadron also pushed for months for legislation, killed in a Senate committee, to close the campaign finance loophole for anonymous campaign donations through limited liability companies.

Those donations, millions of dollars over the years, were noted by federal prosecutors in filing charges in separate cases that forced Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to lose their leadership posts. Both remain legislators, have denied improperly wielding their former influence and face upcoming federal trials.

Buchwald said one ethics reform that now appears teed up for approval next year would cost corrupt public officials their pensions. “It’s now about reconciling two bills and determining what will get done, rather than will we do something?”

One characteristic of this year’s session, with new leaders and many relatively new legislators, has been headway on measures that had been stuck, Buchwald said. They include legalizing mixed martial arts and permitting access to birth records by adoptees, which like pension forfeiture have been discussed, changed and advanced, he said.

Women’s rights legislation, which had been packaged and stalled over Assembly and Senate disagreement on abortion for two years, was pulled apart this year. Separate laws enacted against employment discrimination and human trafficking, clarifying workplace rights for pregnant employees and prohibiting sexual harassment at even the smallest businesses.

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