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Women's agenda fails to pass as NY legislative sessions ends

Karen DeWitt/WXXI

State lawmakers  finished up their work for the year,  approving a measure to build four gambling casinos upstate and create tax free zones at college campuses.  But the final hours of the session were overshadowed by back and forth skirmishing over a Women’s Equality Act, which ultimately, failed.

The casinos measure would allow four new gambling centers upstate, if New Yorkers vote yes on a referendum in the fall to amend the state’s constitution.  If the ballot item is rejected, then the bill allows the state to set up more video lottery terminals instead, which are slot like machines already legal in New York.

The vote comes on the same day that the government reform group Common Cause issued a report on spending by the gambling industry to try to influence New York lawmakers. It finds that gambling conglomerates invested nearly $20 million dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions.   

There was also action on the creation of tax free zones at college campuses, which were first proposed by Governor Cuomo in late May. It would offer new businesses that locate in New York a break from all taxes for up to a decade. In the final version, they have been expanded to include college campuses and other properties all over the state, including New York City and Long Island.

It passed by a large majority in the Assembly with some dissenting votes, including Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a Republican from Troy, who says it’s unfair to struggling businesses already in the state.

“This bill was thrown together at the last minute,” McLaughlin complained. “Because we have a governor who’s ratings are tanking in upstate New York.”

Cuomo has seen a general drop in his poll numbers in recent months, but the steepest decline has been among upstate residents. 

Cuomo has called the tax free zone plan the “boldest economic development programfor upstate New York ever”.

On the final day of the session, multiple rifts developed over Cuomo’s 10 point Women’s Equality Act, between the Senate and Assembly, and within the State Senate itself.

The day long maneuvering resulted in the unusual action of one of the co-Leaders of the Senate offering a hostile amendment to try to force a vote on a section of the women’s equality act dealing with abortion rights .

Senator Jeff Klein is the leader of a group of break away Democrats. They control the Senate in a power sharing arrangement with the Republicans.

“It is her right to choose, and no one, no one, has the right to take away that right,” Klein said on the Senate floor. “I urge you all to vote yes on this very important amendment.”

The GOP Senate leader, Dean Skelos is opposed to the measure that would codify the abortion rights in the federal Roe v Wade decision into New York State law, saying he fears it would expand abortion in New York, something supporters deny.

The amendment was quickly disposed of when 32 Senators, mostly Republicans, joined by a couple of Democrats,  ruled it not germane by a show of hands.

As a result, no Senator was recorded as being for or against abortion rights.

Afterward, Senator Klein, in a statement called it a “sad  day” for the Senate.

The Catholic conference called it a “victory for unborn children”.

Senate Republicans did approve Cuomo’s other nine provisions in the women’s equality act, including anti sexual harassment measures, stiffer penalties for human trafficking, and pay equity for women. 

Governor Cuomo said earlier in the week that even if the other nine provisions could become law it would be a victory. He even introduced the bills as ten separate items in an attempt to salvage some of his agenda.

“If we pass those nine, it is a great day for the women of the state of New York,” Cuomo said.

But the State Assembly went ahead and approved a previous version of the women’s equality act that includes the abortion provision, plus the nine other measures, in one single bill.

Women’s groups, as well as Democratic women in the Assembly, said they did not want to split the equality act up, and would prefer to see all of the provisions go down if the abortion bill was not included. Over two dozen Democratic Assemblywomen chanted “we want ten”, and held a news conference.

“Nine is not enough, we need all ten, and we won’t settle for less,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee. “That’s our message.”

Later, Governor Cuomo called the Assembly Democratic women, along with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, into a private meeting in his office.

Afterward, the Speaker did not rule out returning to act on the nine other bills that make up the women’s equality act separately at some point in the future, but said it would not occur on the session’s last officially scheduled day.

“The day is not magic,” said Silver. “ I never rule out coming back.”

In the waning hours of the session, the women's coalition appeared to break up, with several groups making a 180 degree turn and urging the Assembly to act on the nine other provisions. NARAL Pro Choice New York said it remained with the Assembly and wanted all 10 parts passed.

Lawmakers also adjourned without voting on Governor Cuomo’s campaign finance reform and anti corruption agenda, aimed at answering a wave of scandals to hit the legislature this year.

In retaliation, Cuomo is promising to appoint a commission to investigate the campaign filings of the legislature within days.