With 3 session days left, lawmakers talking about heroin crisis, ethics reforms

Jun 13, 2016

There are only three more days left in the legislative session, and lawmakers are talking with Gov. Andrew Cuomo about a number of bills — but keeping details close to the vest.

After a private meeting with Cuomo, legislative leaders were reluctant to divulge any details of their talks.

“We may be close on a couple of things,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said. “We’re still talking about everything.”

When asked which issues the leaders and Cuomo were close on, Heastie mentioned breast cancer and heroin.

“But we haven’t closed anything down.” he said.

The speaker was then asked if anything in particular had resulted in progress on talks to address the state’s heroin crisis or on Cuomo’s push to make breast cancer screening and treatment more accessible.

Heastie said “no,” and then said he needed to hurry to inform his own Democratic members in a closed-door party conference before publicly discussing any details.

This back and forth between Heastie and reporters is typical of the answers that legislative leaders commonly provide. Part of the reason for the reticence among legislative leaders is that traditionally, issues in Albany are not decided one at a time, but at the end of session, deals are forged that link numerous seemingly unrelated issues together.

Cuomo’s task force on the heroin and opioid crisis issued its report one week before the session is due to end. It comes as the state comptroller reports record deaths in 2014 from heroin overdoses. It recommends, among other things, requiring insurance companies to pay for inpatient treatment as long as a doctor determines it is needed, instead of placing limits on the length of stay in a detox center.

It also advises ending roadblocks put up by insurers that can sometimes lead to a wait of several days before an addicted person is allowed to start treatment. The report also calls for more treatment beds and limiting opioid prescriptions to seven days instead of 30 days. Health care providers would undergo additional mandatory training on prescribing the drugs.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said while he and other senators very much want to address the addiction epidemic, increasing costs to health insurers — which might raise premiums — is a concern.

“Anytime we discuss anything involving health care, we would be ignoring our responsibilities if we didn’t look at costs,” said Flanagan, who said Senate Republicans do want people to access treatment as quickly as possible, without delays or denials from insurance companies.

Among other end-of-session issues, a bill likely to pass would legalize daily fantasy sports, reclassifying them as games of skill, not chance.

But the fate of a measure to let ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft operate outside of New York City is uncertain. Despite extensive lobbying by Uber, there’s been pushback from taxi drivers.

And lawmakers still differ on an extension of New York City’s mayoral control law. Senate Republicans, who have a poor relationship with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, want just a one-year extension, with additional oversights controlled by the governor’s office. Cuomo and Assembly Democrats favor a three-year extension instead with no additional oversights.

Ethics reform is being discussed, but in a year where both former leaders of the legislature have been sentenced to prison, and there’s ongoing state and federal investigations of the governor’s economic development programs, it’s unclear what will ultimately be agreed upon.

Cuomo released bills to close the loophole that allows donors to skirt campaign contribution limits by setting up limited liability companies, but those bills were rejected by the Senate.

The governor, with a little over a week left in the session, announced a plan to crack down on super political action committees, or PACs, to enforce rules that require they operate independently from candidates. Both houses of the legislature reacted positively. Statewide campaigns rely very little on super PACs for funding, so legislators would not suffer a financial loss if the independent expenditure committees were more tightly regulated.

Cuomo did not comment after the leaders’ meeting, but earlier in the day, at an appearance in Niagara Falls, he downplayed expectations. The governor already scrapped ethics reform proposals from the state budget, because he said at the time that lawmakers would not enact them. Cuomo admits he’s not having much more luck convincing the Senate and Assembly to agree to ethics reform in the final days of the session.

“They don’t want to pass it,” said Cuomo. “They have not wanted to pass it for years. They’ve said that 18 different ways.”

The governor is also pushing for a new law to cancel pensions for lawmakers convicted of a felony. Both Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, former leaders of the legislature, are eligible to collect state pensions for the rest of their lives despite being convicted on corruption-related charges.

Lawmakers are taking Monday off and not returning until Tuesday. And so far, they agree on one thing — they will consider no further business after June 16.

“We’re leaving on Thursday,” Heastie said.

“We all agree on that,” Sen. Jeff Klein, Independent Democratic Conference leader, said with a chuckle.

“There is agreement on that,” Flanagan concurred, to more laughter.

But Cuomo said there’s still plenty of time left between now and June 16. The end-of-session date is arbitrary. In past years, lawmakers stayed longer and even regularly came back in the fall to finish up business or address new issues.