NY lawmakers convene: $15 wage, schools, ethics top agenda

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York lawmakers on Wednesday kicked off their 2016 session, which is expected to be dominated by debates over government corruption, education funding and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The Senate and the Assembly convened Wednesday for the first time since last summer for what is expected to be six months of deliberations.

Here's a look at what happened on the opening day and the issues already getting traction in Albany:



Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said raising the wage is a priority for Democrats this year. While the Senate's Republican majority will be an obstacle, Heastie told The Associated Press that he's optimistic about the chances of passing Cuomo's proposal. The Democratic governor has called for a phased-in $15 wage, which would be the highest state minimum in the country. New York's minimum is now $9 for most jobs.

"I think the Senate Republicans realize that the minimum wage polls well even in solidly Republican districts," said Heastie, D-Bronx.

Senate Leader John Flanagan noted that Republicans have participated in several minimum wage hikes since 2004. He said Cuomo's proposal needs to be part of a larger discussion of economic opportunity for everyone that includes job training, retraining and workforce development.

New York Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox criticized tax cuts Cuomo proposed for small businesses as "window dressing" to offset concerns about raising wages to what would be double the level in Pennsylvania. "As a policy matter, his $15 minimum wage is a sinking ship," Cox said.



Flanagan wants to end the state policy of taking back some school aid to balance the budget, a practice that hits suburban districts the hardest. The Long Island Republican said he wouldn't support a budget that doesn't eliminate the policy, known as the gap elimination adjustment.

"We will not have a budget if the GEA is not eliminated," Flanagan said. That comment got an ovation in the Senate chamber.

Heastie said Democrats want big increases in overall school funding — which now totals a record $27 billion. The state's teachers union and public education advocates are calling for $2.4 billion in new funds.

"We will push for the highest funding level possible," Heastie told the Assembly in his opening remarks.



Cuomo has proposed $300 million in small business tax cuts. Heastie said he's interested in considering a tax increase on wealthy New Yorkers, something Flanagan opposes. The Senate leader said the rich already pay a substantial amount of taxes, while 45 percent of New Yorkers pay none.

"We should focus on job development, economic development," Flanagan said. "That will trump everything."



Sen. Andrea Stewart Cousins, who leads that chamber's Democratic minority, said it's time for "a restart" for the Legislature after former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were convicted of trading their influence for personal financial gain. She called for limiting lawmakers' outside income, campaign law reforms to prevent elected officials from using their campaign funds like cash machines, and closing the loophole that lets limited liability companies skirt donation limits and avoid disclosing their principals.

Good-government groups said Wednesday that they will ask lawmakers to sign a pledge vowing to address ethics this year.

"It's time for a new year's resolution to fight the wave of corruption that is overtaking Albany," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.



Five new lawmakers were sworn in Wednesday. The Senate gained Republican Fred Akshar from Broome County and Democrat Roxanne Persaud of Brooklyn. The Assembly picked up three new Democrats: Alicia Hyndman of Queens, Pamela Hunter of Syracuse and Pamela Harris of Brooklyn. The three new Assembly members give the 150-seat chamber 43 female members, its most in history.



Sen. Jeff Klein, head of the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, listed priorities including bans on synthetic marijuana, funding after-school programs for 1.2 million children and enacting 12-week paid family leave to help New Yorkers stay employed while caring for a loved one.

Brian Kolb, leader of the Assembly's Republicans, said the state needs to do more to fight heroin addiction, which he said is ravaging both rural and urban parts of the state.

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