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Hydraulic fracturing report nearing completion

ALBANY – The state’s environmental conservation commissioner said today he is uncertain if he can meet the July 1 deadline ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to issue a comprehensive report on hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas in New York state.

The much-awaited report will make recommendations whether the state should proceed with the controversial drilling process in the Marcellus Shale region of the state, according to Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens.

“We’re working on it, so stayed tuned. We’ll tell you later in the week whether we’re going to meet the deadline or not. We’re working on it very actively,’’ Martens said after emerging from a meeting at the Capitol between Cuomo and his cabinet members.

Martens said the report to be released will be a draft open for subsequent public comments. “Hopefully we can meet a Friday deadline,’’ Martens said.

The report, no matter what it says, is certain to provide a spark in the increasingly bitter debate between environmental and business interests – as well as private landowners sitting atop natural gas sites – over the fracking process, which involves large volumes of water, mixed with chemicals and other material, to break apart rock formations to extract the natural gas.

“I’m not promising,’’ Martens said of being able to meet the Friday deadline.

-- Tom Precious

NYPIRG crunches numbers on 2011 session

ALBANY -- Bill Mahoney, the Excel Wizard, is out with an analysis of the 2011 legislative session that shows all sorts of fun facts about lawmakers and their bill introduction workload, number of votes they missed and how often they voted with their party leaders.

The numbers by Mahoney, a researcher at the New York Public Interest Research Group show, for instance, that Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat, voted 98 percent the same way on bills as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat. Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, a Buffalo Democrat who has had very public battles with Silver for several years, still ended up voting 96 percent of the time with Silver.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat and a longtime committee chairman, voted the same as Silver on 94 percent of the bills. The dissent included this year's budget votes, which Schimminger pushed against; it cost him a seat at the negotiating table during the spring's public conference sessions between the two houses.

The most reliable same-as-leader voter from Western New York in the GOP conference in the Republican-led Senate? Freshman Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, voted the same as Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos 99.47 percent of the time. One of his few breakaway votes? The gay marriage bill that Grisanti is getting praised by gay rights groups but pilloried by conservatives.

The numbers show 677 same-as bills passed the two houses this year.

The overall analysis is here. The specific individual lawmaker analysis is here.

-- Tom Precious

Gay marriage rights approved

ALBANY – Gay marriage rights were approved Friday night after a Hudson Valley Republican said he was becoming the crucial 32nd vote to carry the measure through after marathon weeks of lobbying, cajoling and threats by both sides in the emotional debate that has tested the religious and political limits for many state lawmakers.

The vote was 33-29, two more than needed.

"USA! USA! USA!'' a crowd of spectators chanted after the vote.

Sen. Stephen Saland, a Dutchess County Republican, said the bill had changed enough to ensure religious organization will be protected by the measure.

“I’m certainly at peace with my vote. It was a struggle,’’ Saland said on the Senate floor shortly before 10pm.

Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, to the applause of spectators in the gallery, said he was ending his past opposition and voting for the bill.

"I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage,'' Grisanti said.

He noted his years of opposition and campaign vows to oppose gay marriage. "To those whose support I may lose, please know in the past I was telling you what I believed at that time was the truth,'' Grisanti said.

"I struggled with this immensely,'' he added.

In the end, though, he said, "I cannot deny a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, people of my district (and) across this state ... the same rights I have with my wife."

Unless senators who already pledged to switch their votes, the measure will pass with at least 32 votes tonight.

Debate was still underway Friday night, but 31 senators already had said they support the measure. It is uncertain if any other Republicans will join Saland.

New York will become the sixth state, and the largest, to permit same-sex marriages once signed into law, as promised by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Cheers from supporters could be heard flowing onto the Senate floor after an amendment providing additional religious organization protections was approved by 36 votes.

-- Tom Precious

Gay marriage bill coming to floor tonight

ALBANY -- Senate Republicans say they have decided to put the gay marriage rights bill to the floor later tonight.

There is much speculation about the leanings of at least two Republican senators, including Buffalo Sen. Mark Grisanti. Earlier today, Grisanti said he is struggling deeply over the issue, but said he has not yet made up his mind.

"I am still right there on the fence,'' Grisanti said at 5:30pm.

Passage is one vote shy in the Senate in advance of the actual voting. Sen. Steve Saland, a Dutchess County Republican, is another who advocates say could flip his vote from no the last time the bill was considered two years ago to a yes vote tonight.

One Senate Republican who attended the hours' long private meeting today said Grisanti and Saland did not reveal how they might vote tonight.

New York would become the sixth state to permit gay marriages.

"After many hours of deliberation and discussion over the past several weeks among the members, it has been decided that same-sex marriage legislation will be brought to the full Senate for an up or down vote. As I have said many times, this is a very difficult issue and it will be a vote of conscience for every member of the Senate,'' said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

-- Tom Precious

Tax cap, rent control, mandate bill now out

ALBANY -- The sides have now turned over their cards: the "big ugly,'' or what some Assembly Democrats are calling the "big pretty,'' is out: property tax cap, rent control and creation of a new mandate relief council.

With unveiling of the omnibus bill and release a short while ago of the SUNY bill and chapter amendments to the gay marriage measure, all the major outstanding pieces of legislation are now hanging out there awaiting passage later tonight by the two houses.

Assembly Democrats have broken for private conference; Senate Republicans been meeting for hours behind closed doors.

The tax cap bill, by the way, sunsets on June 15, 2016. Until then, local tax levies would have a ceiling of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Sixty percent of voters can approve an override. However, both houses in the past 24 hours have passed a big pension borrowing bill that critics say undermines the effect of a tax cap.

-- Tom Precious

Gay marriage amendments made public

ALBANY -- Here is the chapter amendment introduced a short while ago on religious protections in the gay marriage bill. Not certain when Assembly will take it up, but speculation grows that Senate will move to a floor vote later tonight on the gay marriage legislation.

A8520
                                      June 24, 2011
                                       ___________

        Introduced by M. of A. O'DONNELL -- (at request of the Governor) -- read
          once and referred to the Committee on Judiciary

        AN  ACT  to amend the domestic relations law, in relation to the ability
          to marry; and to amend a chapter of the laws  of  2011,  amending  the
          domestic  relations  law relating to the ability to marry, as proposed
          in legislative bill number A.  8354,  in  relation  to  the  statutory
          construction  of such chapter; and repealing certain provisions of the
          domestic relations law relating to parties to a marriage

          The People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and  Assem-
        bly, do enact as follows:

     1    Section  1.  Section 10-b of the domestic relations law, as added by a
     2  chapter of the laws of 2011, amending the domestic relations law  relat-
     3  ing  to  the ability to marry, as proposed in legislative bill number A.
     4  8354, is REPEALED and a new section 10-b is added to read as follows:
     5    § 10-b. Religious exception. 1. Notwithstanding any  state,  local  or
     6  municipal law, rule, regulation, ordinance, or other provision of law to
     7  the  contrary,  a religious entity as defined under the education law or
     8  section two of the religious corporations law, or a corporation incorpo-
     9  rated under the benevolent orders law or  described  in  the  benevolent
    10  orders  law  but formed under any other law of this state, or a not-for-
    11  profit corporation operated, supervised, or controlled  by  a  religious
    12  corporation, or any employee thereof, being managed, directed, or super-
    13  vised  by  or  in  conjunction  with a religious corporation, benevolent
    14  order, or a not-for-profit corporation as described in this subdivision,
    15  shall not be required to provide services,  accommodations,  advantages,
    16  facilities, goods, or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of
    17  a marriage. Any such refusal to provide services, accommodations, advan-
    18  tages, facilities, goods, or privileges shall not create any civil claim
    19  or  cause of action or result in any state or local government action to
    20  penalize, withhold benefits,  or  discriminate  against  such  religious
    21  corporation,  benevolent  order,  a not-for-profit corporation operated,

         EXPLANATION--Matter in italics (underscored) is new; matter in brackets
                              [ ] is old law to be omitted.
                                                                   LBD12066-08-1

 

        A. 8520                             2
 
     1  supervised, or controlled by a religious corporation,  or  any  employee
     2  thereof being managed, directed, or supervised by or in conjunction with
     3  a  religious  corporation,  benevolent order, or a not-for-profit corpo-
     4  ration.
     5    2.  Notwithstanding  any  state, local or municipal law or rule, regu-
     6  lation, ordinance, or other provision of law to the contrary, nothing in
     7  this article shall limit or diminish the right, pursuant to  subdivision
     8  eleven  of  section  two hundred ninety-six of the executive law, of any
     9  religious or denominational institution or organization, or  any  organ-
    10  ization  operated for charitable or educational purposes, which is oper-
    11  ated, supervised or controlled by or  in  connection  with  a  religious
    12  organization, to limit employment or sales or rental of housing accommo-
    13  dations  or admission to or give preference to persons of the same reli-
    14  gion or denomination or from taking such action as is calculated by such
    15  organization to promote the religious principles for which it is  estab-
    16  lished or maintained.
    17    3.  Nothing  in this section shall be deemed or construed to limit the
    18  protections and exemptions otherwise provided to religious organizations
    19  under section three of article one of the constitution of the  state  of
    20  New York.
    21    §  2.  Subdivision 1-a of section 11 of the domestic relations law, as
    22  added by a chapter of the laws of 2011, amending the domestic  relations
    23  law  relating  to  the ability to marry, as proposed in legislative bill
    24  number A.8354, is amended to read as follows:
    25    1-a. A refusal by a clergyman or minister as defined in section two of
    26  the religious corporations law, or Society for Ethical Culture leader to
    27  solemnize any marriage under this subdivision shall not create  a  civil
    28  claim  or  cause  of  action  or result in any state or local government
    29  action to penalize, withhold benefits or discriminate against such cler-
    30  gyman or minister.
    31    § 3. A chapter of the laws of 2011, amending  the  domestic  relations
    32  law  relating  to  the ability to marry, as proposed in legislative bill
    33  number A. 8354, is amended by adding  a  new  section  5-a  to  read  as
    34  follows:
    35    § 5-a. This act is to be construed as a whole, and all parts of it are
    36  to  be  read  and construed together.   If any part of this act shall be
    37  adjudged by any court of  competent  jurisdiction  to  be  invalid,  the
    38  remainder  of  this  act shall be invalidated.   Nothing herein shall be
    39  construed to affect the parties' right to appeal the matter.
    40    § 4. This act shall take effect on the same date as  such  chapter  of
    41  the laws of 2011, takes effect.

SUNY tuition bill emerges at long last

ALBANY –- The long-awaited state university tuition hike legislation finally appeared this afternoon, providing for a 30 percent tuition bump over five years and guaranteeing the state will not lower its aid to the State University of New York while students are asked to dig deeper to pay for college.

For the University at Buffalo, the legislation appears to give the green light for its plans to move its medical campus to downtown Buffalo.

Talks raged the past couple days at the Capitol over proposed language to benefit construction unions in the Buffalo area. Lawmakers said UB and local unions agreed during its earlier UB 2020 plan several years ago to a project labor agreement to pay prevailing wages and other union protections. A push was on in talks the past 24 hours over the broader new bill to force other SUNY campuses to also abide by a similar project labor agreement. That provision was opposed by SUNY and eventually dropped in the final bill that now only specifically requires an agreement with labor unions on UB construction projects valued over $20 million.

The legislation, expected to be voted on later today in both houses, includes a $300-per-year tuition increase over five years for in-state undergraduate students. The tuition is now $4,970 annually.

Those students now eligible for the maximum $5,000 Tuition Assistance Program will not be affected by the hike. Out-of-state SUNY students will see tuition rise 10 percent per year.

The bill also requires campuses to create a financial aid fund for students with family incomes above $80,000 and who now do not qualify for TAP.

It also includes $80 million in bonding by the state’s economic development agency, as well as another $60 million from the SUNY construction fund, to pay for development efforts at UB and the other three campus centers at Stony Brook, Binghamton and Albany. UB is in line to get $35 million in state seed money for its $375 million downtown medical school building.

UB earlier this year revised its original far more ambitious –- and, at $5 billion, more expensive -– program to overhaul all three of its campuses.

The requirement that the state maintain its SUNY funding in future years applies so long as a governor does not declare a fiscal emergency. The final bill does not contain any legal promises that the state will not sweep some tuition fund proceeds to its general fund for budget-balancing purposes, which has been a long Albany tradition. Cuomo, though, has publicly vowed not to continue that practice.

Joshua Vlasto, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said the bill will provide predictable tuition increases instead of the long-standing spikes in SUNY rates and "empowers students and parents to plan for college expenses.''

-- Tom Precious

Cuomo 'cautiously optimistic' on gay marriage vote

ALBANY -– With a vote on gay marriage rights again failing to occur, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he is nevertheless holding out hope that the measure will get through the GOP-controlled State Senate.

Asked Thursday whether any additional senators suggested to him that they will vote for the bill, Cuomo said, “I’m cautiously optimistic. Let me just say that. I don’t want to get into private conversations that I’ve had.’’

There had been increasing talk that the bill, which for days has been one vote shy of passage in the Senate, could be brought onto the Senate floor long after late television newscasts have ended and newspaper deadlines have blown by. The vast majority of Senate Republicans will not be voting for the bill, and lawmakers privately say that if there has to be a vote, they would rather have it while most New Yorkers are asleep rather than in the light of day.

Asked if such a middle-of-the-night vote is a cynical act, Cuomo said, “I’ll leave that to the Senate to decide how to do it.’’

The Senate adjourned late Thursday before any vote could occur.

Besides gay marriage, major remaining bills -- a property tax cap, New York City rent control, a state university tuition increase and local government mandate relief -- have yet to be made public as lawmakers hope to end their 2011 session today.

“We’re working through the details, but I wouldn’t call them problems," the governor said in an interview. "These are very big things that we’re trying to get done, and they’re complicated and they’re important, so we want to do them right. But I wouldn’t say we’ve hit any obstacles. Just a lot of details to work through.’’

Cuomo did not elaborate.

The handful of fence-sitting Republican senators continued their ruminating ways Thursday evening. Buffalo Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, who sources said met with Cuomo for 40 minutes  during the day, said he has still not decided a position on the bill.

“I’m working on it. I’ll get there soon,’’ Sen. Stephen M. Saland, a Dutchess County Republican, said Thursday evening when asked for his position.

-- Tom Precious

CSEA reaches tentative contract deal with Cuomo

Albany -- The largest union representing state workers has reached a tentative, five-year contract deal with the state that it says will avert its share of layoffs threatened by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The Civil Service Employees Association announced the deal's terms for its 66,000 members working in the state's executive branch. If ratified, CSEA would be the first union to settle with Cuomo, who has said he will fire up to 9,800 workers if concessions are not made.

A ratification vote is expected over the next several weeks. Here are the terms of the deal, which rescinds layoff notices recently sent by Cuomo to CSEA members, as provided in a release by the union:

Wages

• No across the board salary increase in FY 2011 and 2012;
• $1,000 (not added to base pay) starting April 1, 2013; ($775 lump sum payable April 1, 2013 / $225 lump sum payable April 1, 2014)
• 2 percent across the board increase payable April 1, 2014;
• 2 percent across the board increase payable April 1, 2015;
• No changes in payments of step increments;
• No changes in Longevity payments.

Furloughs

• Five unpaid days off in FY 2011; (The value of the five days will be spread over the remaining pay periods equally.)
• Four unpaid days off in FY 2012. (The value of the four days will be spread equally over pay periods in the fiscal year – employees will be reimbursed for the value of these days starting in year five of the contract.)

Health Benefits

• Grade 9 employees and below – 2 percent increase in premium; (Individuals - 10 percent increasing to 12 percent and family coverage – 25 percent increasing to 27 percent of premium cost.)
• Grade 10 employees and above – 6 percent increase in premium; (Individuals - 10 percent increasing to 16 percent and family coverage – 25 percent increasing to 31 percent of premium cost.)
• Various incremental changes in coverage provisions, co-payments and prescription drug benefits;
• Maintains funding for dental, prescription eyeglass and other benefits provided through the CSEA\

Employee Benefit Fund

• No change in ability to use sick leave credits to help defray the cost of health insurance premiums in retirement.

The agreement would also maintain all side letter labor-management agreements currently in place between CSEA and New York state and establishes a committee to address the state’s use of temporary employees, consultants and contractors to determine how state employees can be better utilized to fill this role

-- By Tom Precious

End of session = threat time

ALBANY – The Legislature’s top Republican drew a line in the sand today, saying the 2011 legislative session will not end until a property tax cap bill is approved.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, in an interview at the Capitol, noted a threat today by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that lawmakers should plan to stay in Albany if they don’t pass a measure extending rent control laws for about one million apartments in New York City and some surrounding counties.

“The governor says we won’t go home without rent regulations. We won’t go home until we have a property tax cap," Skelos said.

Cuomo, Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced 24 days ago that they had reached a deal to control the annual rise in local property taxes at 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Under some circumstances, schools could be limited to zero growth.

But no final bill has yet to surface, as the cap has been tied to approval of a new rent control law for New York City.

Skelos said the tax cap is not in trouble, though the sides are still split over whether to have the cap law sunset in several years, making it more of a test program than a permanent statute.

Earlier, four of the state’s more influential labor leaders – the heads of the AFL-CIO, Civil Service Employees Association, Public Employees Federation and the New York State United Teachers – stood outside the Senate chamber and called on the Legislature to back away from the cap plan. They said it would lead to widespread service cuts affecting an array of residents.

“I think it’s important we let the greater public know that this is bad public policy," said Denis Hughes, president of the AFL-CIO. He called the cap a “scheme” and a “regressive tax."

On other matters, Skelos said no other Republican senators have flipped their position to support gay marriage rights. “Nobody has indicated any change other than undecided," he said after a meeting behind closed doors with senators and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been a major donor to Senate GOP political causes over the years.

Still no where close to being resolved, Skelos said, is a plan to let the state university system raise its tuition on annual, predictable levels and a related public/private partnership deal helping the University at Buffalo proceed with its planned move of the medical school to downtown Buffalo.

-- Tom Precious

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About Politics Now

Robert J. McCarthy

Robert J. McCarthy

A native of Schenectady, Robert J. McCarthy came to The Buffalo News in 1982 following a six-year stint at the Olean Times Herald. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and has been covering local, state and national politics since 1992.

rmccarthy@buffnews.com


Tom Precious

Tom Precious

Tom Precious joined The Buffalo News in 1997 as bureau chief at the state Capitol, where he covers everything from statewide politics and state government fiscal affairs to health care, environmental and municipal government matters. Prior to The News, he worked for news outlets in Albany and Washington, DC.

tprecious@buffnews.com


Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri is an Amherst native and has covered politics and government in upstate New York since 2003. She joined The Buffalo News in 2012 and covers City Hall.

@jillterreri | jterreri@buffnews.com


Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News Washington bureau chief, has reported from the nation's capital since 1989 after joining The News as a business reporter in 1984. A graduate of Syracuse University, Zremski is a former Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. In 2007, he served as president of the National Press Club.

@JerryZremski | jzremski@buffnews.com

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