We the People: “The Big Ugly” centerpiece of Albany legislative session wrap-up

Legislators ended the legislative session after passing a bill that extended New York City rent regulations, the property tax cap, tax breaks for developers, and mayoral control of the Department of Education, and tweaked teacher performance evaluation criteria.

It was difficult to reach a final agreement because the issues are complicated and have great importance to various adversarial groups. The bill extended rent regulations to protect about a million New York City renters for four years, extended 421a property tax abatements for six months and extended mayoral control of New York City schools for one year. The bill was christened the “Big Ugly” because it has enough controversial components that it unattractive to everyone; no politician wants to stand near it for long.

The mayor was a big loser on this one. He lobbied for permanent mayoral control of New York City schools, revision of 421a property tax breaks and an end to “vacancy de-control” of protected rental units among other things. He was unsuccessful and alienated the governor as well as Republicans and Democrats in Albany.

The mayor’s efforts were described as unilateral, unproductive and inflexible. The mayor — who finally relented on his opposition to hiring more cops for New York City — will have to learn that we need allies in Albany in order provide for the citizens of New York City.

The state Republicans got a $1.3 billion property tax rebate program to bestow on homeowners outside of New York City. In 2016, the benefit will be $185. In the three following years, the benefit will be a percentage added to the existing STAR credit. A homeowner with annual income below $275,000 living in a school district compliant with the state’s school tax cap will get a check in the mailbox near Election Day. New York City homeowners are ineligible.

The Big Ugly provided a six-month extension for the 421a property tax break which Assemblymember Charles Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat, said, has “the real estate industry … laughing their way to the bank.”

The 421a renewal issue spawned cooperation between building trades unions and developers. The unions lobbied for inclusion of a “prevailing wage” clause while the developers were content to consider the extension in a better political climate.

“The real estate industry wouldn’t want (421a) up in an election year in Albany, when voters would have more leverage over bills,” said Democratic political consultant Doug Forand.  Everyone with juice in our state capital realizes that those pesky voters can only upset the beneficial relationship between lobbyists and their legislators.

Governor Cuomo said that the 421a abatement could be extended for another four years subject to a “prevailing wage” deal between labor leaders and the real estate industry.

The bill leaves rent regulations for tenant protection in place for four years and raises the threshold for landlords to take rent-regulated apartments and rent them at market rates from the current $2,500 to $2,700 a month. This isn’t much protection for renters when the average market rate rent for a one bedroom apartment is more than $3,000 a month.

The ability to use “vacancy de-control” has already eliminated tens of thousands of affordable units, including 100,000 in this past year. The new threshold will allow property owners to deregulate more and more “protected” units.

The mayor and Assembly Democrats pushed to eliminate “vacancy de‑control” while developers and their legislators know it is just a matter of time until market forces will effectively put an end to rent-regulation.

The Senate Republicans hope they will have even stronger control of the upper chamber  in 2019. The four-year extension means the issue will be revisited in 2019 after a low‑turnout midterm election that should favor Republican control of the Senate. The 2019 sunset for rent regulation “is very bad (for tenants), and … good for Senate Republicans and good for Andrew Cuomo,” said Michael McKee of Tenants PAC, who also noted that Governor Cuomo will be up for reelection in 2018.

Governor Cuomo has been accused of selling out to “his real estate buddies” but he criticized tenant advocates for being unreasonable. Some tenant advocates protested at the governor’s offices and called him “Governor Glenwood,” after one of his political donors, a real estate developer and opponent of rent regulation. In the end, Governor Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan will have to own responsibility for the “Big Ugly.”

In national news, the Supreme Court upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act which hopefully will end the partisan political gamesmanship that has bedeviled the law. New York City will be getting more police officers for safer streets but we still need constitutionally sound federal gun regulation.

Actor Vince Vaughn, in an interview with GQ, said he advocates for the right of citizens to bear arms in public and in private. He said that people “don’t have the right to bear arms because of burglars; we have the right to bear arms to resist the supreme power of a corrupt and abusive government.” Fox News (no surprise) adopted his simplistic claptrap and who knows, with a little effort, he could join the legion of deep-thinking and civic-minded candidates for the GOP nomination for president, like Donald Trump.

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