By Tom Precious
ALBANY -– Officials at the Capitol are not ruling out the possibility of a special session of the Legislature in the coming week to consider a package of gun control measures in the wake of the Connecticut school massacre.
After initally declining to comment, administration officials -- minutes after this item was posted -- said the governor has "no plans'' to call the Legislature back into special session. The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the sides are "no where close to a deal'' and that the governor plans, at this point, to make it an issue for his State of the State address.
On Thursday morning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed the sides are discussing a gun control package, aimed chiefly at new restrictions on assault-style and large capacity weapons. But he told Albany radio station WGDJ that a special session before the end of the year appears to be a big lift. "I highly doubt it,'' Cuomo said of him calling a special session to take up the gun issue.
"There's a big difference of opinion on these issues,'' the governor said. Of the state's current assault weapons law, he said it has "more holes than swiss cheese.''
Word began spreading late Wednesday in the lobbying community and among rank-and-file lawmakers. Two individuals said there was some chatter that lawmakers could be asked to return as early as tomorrow or Friday. “I don’t see how they pull anything off that fast," said one lawmaker who nonetheless confirmed that talks are underway. Most officials and lobbyists, despite the rumblings, say a special session will be hard to pull off with the Christmas holiday coming up.
Officials with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office would not comment on the possibility of a special session, and the governor has been working this week on details of his State of the State address to be delivered January 9. The governor has dismissed in recent weeks talk of a special session – which some lawmakers for months had wanted as a last-ditch attempt to get a pay raise for themselves. [If they don’t act by December 31, lawmakers would have to wait another two years – until the next session of the Legislature begins – for a pay raise, which they have not gotten since 1999.]
Lawmakers, though, appear resigned that even if a special session did occur the pay raise could not be taken up -- given the political hit the Legislature would take for getting a pay hike under the cover of gun control in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting and while downstate is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy.
The governor this week said the federal government should be looking to bolster gun control laws, but said his administration is also studying ways to make New York’s already strict laws even stronger, including clearing up what he called ambiguities regarding assault-like weapons.
The speculation tonight of a special session was getting a strange mix of responses. Senate Republicans say they were unaware of talks underway. It remains uncertain why Senate Republicans would want to so early test their relations with the newly formed coalition of GOP lawmakers and five breakaway Democrats over gun control -- an issue that can be a political third rail for some GOP senators in more conservative districts.
Meanwhile, Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, had a brief response when asked this evening if a special session was still a possibility before December 31. "No comment,'' he said.
The new leader of the Senate's Democratic conference this morning endorsed the idea of quickly doing a gun control package. "Communities across this nation, and many right here in New York State, have had to endure the horror of gun violence for far too long. We have seen an increase in violent gun-related crimes throughout our state and our nation and we have struggled to end this epidemic. As elected leaders, we have an obligation to move beyond partisan ideology and political platforms. We must come together to do the right thing and make our cities and communities safer,'' said Democratic Conference Leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat who was voted as the new leader of the main Democratic conference earlier this week.
“The Senate Democratic Conference has been a long time supporter of common sense gun laws and we welcome news that a special session to address these laws is being discussed. We stand ready to offer our support. The time has come to not only have this conversation, but to act in the best interests of our constituents, and our children. We have a responsibility to all of those who have been impacted by gun violence to come together, begin the healing process and find common sense solutions to this societal plague,'' she said.
But Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans who have -- until Jan. 1 -- full control over the Senate, said, "There are no plans for a special session.''
The "no plans" Albany-speak means, in the end, no one is really certain if this deal can be pulled off, or when. Negotiators for the Senate, Assembly and governor's office are back at the negotiating table this morning.
Further, a source close to the coalition group that will control the Senate in January -- Senate Republicans and five breakaway Senate Democrats -- told The Buffalo News this morning that Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein have been speaking regularly about a variety of issues the past two weeks. "Right now, gun control is chief among them,'' the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said the two senators "are committed to finding common ground on the issue.''
Among the ideas being debated are far stricter restrictions on assault weapon sales, restricting large capacity ammunition clips, and more severe penalties for crimines involving guns. Assembly Democrats have also in the past promoted periodic re-registration of gun licenses, a requirement now only on the books in certain downstate localities, including New York City.
Cuomo, who is eyeing a 2016 White House run, is said to be pushing the issue hard so he can be the first governor to further crack down on gun possession laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.