- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York lawmakers returning to Albany this week face a long list of challenges as they seek to turn the page on a disastrous 2015 that saw the leaders of both the Senate and Assembly convicted of corruption.

Debates over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call to raise the minimum wage to $15, funding for public education and proposals to allow Uber to expand upstate will all be on the agenda for the 2016 legislative session, which gets underway Wednesday.

Whether lawmakers pass tougher ethics rules to address the corruption problem that last year roiled the state Capitol remains to be seen. In 2015, despite the arrests of both ex-Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Leader Dean Skelos, they passed only modest changes expected to do little to improve Albany’s reputation for venal politics.

“I’m sure the public is paying attention to scandal after scandal and scratching their heads collectively wondering what is going on,” said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers, leader of the Senate’s Democratic minority. “Year after year we’ve been unable to get this done. We can’t let another opportunity go by.”

Possibilities include closing a campaign finance loophole that allows limited liability corporations to contribute huge amounts while disclosing little about their actual donors. It’s a proposal that has passed the Assembly but not the Senate. New Senate Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, has said ethics remains a priority but has not offered specifics about what he will seek this year.

Budget negotiations could quickly show whether the Legislature is serious about reform. For decades, the spending plan has been hammered out behind closed doors by the governor, the speaker and the Senate leader. It’s an insider process that has been criticized by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the prosecutor who brought down Silver and Skelos.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said this is the year the tradition of “three men in a room” should stop.

“The days of backroom deals, secretive negotiations, and putting too much power in too few hands must end,” said the Canandaigua Republican.

But ethics were not mentioned in a statement from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie about his vision for the session, which included references to school funding, higher education and the Dream Act, which would extend financial help to students in the country illegally.

“Our core values remain the same, which means putting families first so they can succeed,” said the Bronx Democrat. “It means providing vital services to New York’s neediest citizens. And importantly, it means leading the way - as we always have - in the fight to increase the minimum wage.”

Cuomo’s push to phase in a $15 minimum wage has broad support in the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly but faces obstacles in the Republican-led Senate. The state’s minimum wage went from $8.75 an hour to $9 on Dec. 31. After proposals to raise it even higher fell flat in the Senate, Cuomo circumvented the Legislature last year to use executive power to approve a phased-in $15 minimum for fast-food workers.

Now, the Democratic governor is vowing to make a $15 wage for all workers a priority in 2016. Cuomo will deliver his state of the state address and unveil his 2016 agenda on Jan. 13.

“People should not have to choose if they are working full-time between paying for rent and buying food,” Cuomo said in December. “People are being left behind and we are going to work with those in the Legislature this year to raise the minimum wage in this state to $15, the highest in the United States of America.”

Teachers unions and public-education groups are urging lawmakers to approve $2.4 billion in additional school spending, and it is likely charter school advocates will again seek a greater share of funding.

Uber has launched an aggressive effort to expand its app-based ride-hailing service to upstate cities such as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. Currently limited to the New York City area, the company says an expansion would create jobs and new transportation options for residents. But taxi companies are defending their turf, questioning Uber’s job claims and saying the company should abide by the same regulations that apply to cabs.

Housing and homelessness has emerged as another top issue, and one now caught up in the ongoing feud between Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Cuomo’s administration has said the mayor is failing to manage the problem, and the governor has vowed to propose a state intervention.

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