Lawmakers in Albany tried to continue business as usual in the wake of one of the worst scandals in recent decades, that has overshadowed most other news coming out of the Capitol. Much of this week’s legislative session has been canceled, but politicians who were in town insisted that their agendas are not being derailed.
In the state Senate, two members have been indicted, and a former senator was sentenced to a year in jail in recent weeks, while six other senators are potentially under federal investigation.
The Senate decided to skip holding session altogether for the week, saying it would save taxpayers money. The session was only to have lasted one day because of a Jewish holiday.
The state Assembly did come in as scheduled for one day. One assemblyman has been indicted in the past month, while another has admitted to wearing wire for two years and has resigned.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver held a press conference to announce passage of a one-house bill to give farm workers more rights. Silver says those include “the right to one day of rest each week, the right to be paid time-and-a-half for work performed beyond the traditional eight-hour day.”
Silver was joined by Kerry Kennedy, who is also Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former wife, and an advocate for farm worker rights.
Cuomo also tried on Monday to stick to some of the issues he says are a priority for the end of the session. Cuomo, who in recent days offered a detailed presentation of a plan to expand gambling casinos in the state, presented a proposal to privatize electric services now run by the Long Island Power Authority.
“LIPA is broken, and LIPA has to go away,” Cuomo said. “We need a new and better way to provide utility services on Long Island.”
Cuomo was joined by Silver, as well as Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, who came to the Capitol for a private leaders meeting with the governor, even though the rest of the senators weren’t there.
All say their long list of policy items for the remaining weeks of the legislative session won’t be derailed by the scandals. Sen. Skelos says he wants to concentrate on new jobs.
“We’re focusing in on job creation,” Skelos said.
Silver says his agenda includes passage of the Dream Act to allow children of undocumented immigrants to get funding for college, and changes to New York City’s Stop and Frisk law, which involves decriminalizing public possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“We have accomplished a lot and we hope to continue to accomplish a lot,” said Silver.
Cuomo is also seeking public financing of political campaigns, and other ethical reforms, a bill to put into state law the abortion rights protections spelled out in the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision. He also wants to create a special board to help economically distressed upstate cities avoid bankruptcy.
The governor says the on-going scandals will only be a distraction if lawmakers allow themselves to become overwhelmed with anger or embarrassment.
“It is basically irrelevant unless you allow it to become relevant,” said Cuomo. “Let’s focus on what we’re supposed to do.”
Silver is also tied to an investigation by the state ethics commission. It’s examining sexual harassment charges against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, and how some initially secret payments were made, using taxpayer money, to alleged victims.
The speaker has said the commission’s final report exonerates him, though he’s admitted he made a “mistake” keeping the settlements secret at first.
“I believe a a full review of the facts will show that we acted in good faith,” Silver said.
The report has been bottled up in the legislature’s ethics commission, but the state commission is threatening to release it shortly, after a 90-day waiting period ends May 21.