Friday, July 2, 2010

Special-Interest Legislation Moves Through Albany by Nicholas Confessore -

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Check-cashing stores could make high-interest payday loans. Funeral homes could offer all-in-one package deals that are now banned in New York and that critics say prey on the families of the recently deceased. And so-called rubber rooms, where New York City schoolteachers languished during disciplinary proceedings until officials moved to close them this year, may soon reopen, this time for city firefighters and police officers.

A veritable flotilla of special-interest bills is quietly floating through the Legislature as lawmakers prepare to wrap up for the year, part of the end-of-session rush to pass bills sought by their political allies or campaign donors.

Such bills are rarely trumpeted in press releases or at news conferences. They advance not on the chants of crowds outside the Capitol, but by the murmurs of lobbyists in the hallways inside. Each is important to some narrow constituency: a particular labor union, say, or even a single company.

“The end of session is affectionately known as Whac-a-Mole season,” said Blair Horner, the legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a consumer and environmental watchdog group. “It’s when the public should spend a lot of time looking for bad bills.”

Some of these bills may yet fail in one chamber or the other, while others may be vetoed by Gov. David A. Paterson. Yet the sheer array of such legislation is a testament to the sway that lobbyists can have as the session ends, when dozens of bills pour through legislative channels to the floor of the Assembly and Senate, sometimes with little debate.

The rubber room bill — as opponents call it — would mandate arbitration for virtually all New York City police officers and firefighters dismissed for misconduct, overriding the disciplinary hearing process now enshrined in law.

A bill passed by the Senate this week, and under consideration in the Assembly, would seek a constitutional amendment to allow the expansion of gambling across New York, a boon to casino operators. Another bill would have a single beneficiary: Nat Sherman, the venerable Manhattan tobacco store, which would be exempted from New York City’s strict anti-smoking laws and be allowed to operate a smoking lounge at its new 42nd Street showroom.

And in what is practically a rite of summer in labor-friendly Albany, there are dozens of bills to “sweeten” the pensions of public workers. According to an analysis by the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed group that favors the restraint of spending, at least 50 such bills are being considered in the Legislature. Some are claimed by sponsors to have no fiscal impact, despite conferring more costly benefits on dozens, hundreds or thousands of people.

Critics note that even as lawmakers seek to expand pension benefits for public employees, they are close to approving a controversial bill that would allow financially troubled local governments to borrow from the state’s pension fund to cover payments they owe to the same fund.

“The Legislature just authorized delaying payments to the pension system because they are unaffordable,” said Elizabeth Lynam, the budget commission’s deputy research director. “For them to be making pensions more expensive at the same time is completely irrational.”

Pensions are not the only benefit being sweetened. Another bill would require New York City to provide 80 hours of training to firefighters next year to update them on changes to the city’s building and fire codes. Because the city would also have to keep firehouses fully staffed, the bill would effectively guarantee firefighters 80 hours of overtime, at a cost of $18 million, officials said.

“We don’t take cops off the beat for two and half weeks to send them to legal training on changes in criminal law,” said Marc La Vorgna, a spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “We can continue to keep fire officers updated on the codes without this costly, unfunded mandate.”

Assemblyman Darryl C. Towns, a Brooklyn Democrat who is sponsoring the check-cashing bill, defended it. He said it would require strict oversight by the state banking superintendent, who would set the top loan rate, and would give lower-income people access to credit on better terms than many credit cards or rent-to-own stores offer.

“These aren’t payday loans,” Mr. Towns said. “They’re short-term loans that would be closely regulated by the Banking Department to give people resources not that much different from credit cards.”

Senator Eric Adams, a Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored the gambling bill, said he had decided to push the legislation after taking a fact-finding trip to casinos in neighboring states.

“What struck me was all the New York license plates in the parking lots,” said Mr. Adams, who estimates that the state is losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in New Yorkers’ money to casinos in nearby states.

As for the bill that city officials say could lead to rubber rooms for firefighters and police officers, the bill has passed the Assembly and is pending in the Senate. Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, a Democrat from Brooklyn who sponsored the bill, said it was a matter of fairness.

“I support due process in civil and criminal matters,” he said. “I support it for a quasi-judicial process, too.”