CAPITOL — If everything had gone according to plan, Thursday should have marked the beginning of a well-earned break for the state’s 213 lawmakers, as the 2017 legislative session drew to a close.
Instead, the day was spent in confusion and full of pointed language over one primary piece of unfinished business: the recurrent debate over how long New York City’s schools should remain under the control of the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.
The session ended Wednesday night without an agreement to extend mayoral control, casting an aura of uncertainty over the leadership of the nation’s largest public school system and its 1.1 million students.
By the next morning, there were hints of progress: A one-year compromise was being floated, and Assembly members were being asked if they would consider returning to Albany on Friday to vote on the issue.
But a few hours later, hopes of a quick resolution seemed misplaced. The Assembly speaker, Carl M. Heastie, D-Bronx, released a statement saying that his chamber had “no plan to return.” Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate leader, Sen. John J. Flanagan, R-Long Island, indicated that senators would not come back unless a firm deal was in place.
Finally, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo emerged after days of public absence, suggesting that mayoral control was more complex — and less universally loved — than it appeared, and leveling his most stringent criticism toward the Assembly, led by members of his own Democratic Party.
“For a Legislature to leave with 1 million children returning to what we know was a failed management system is a dereliction of duty,” the governor said during a nearly hourlong news conference in the Capitol’s ceremonial Red Room. “Frankly, it’s worse for the Assembly because the Assembly represents New York City much more than the state Senate.”
Cuomo’s remarks came amid a growing sense that a deal on mayoral control could be elusive, despite optimistic talk from City Hall. Even after the Legislature went home just before midnight Wednesday — and weary staffers began to fill up bars near the Capitol — Eric Phillips, a spokesman for de Blasio, issued a statement saying “there’s time left to get this deal done.”
Phillips was technically right: De Blasio’s control over the schools is in effect through June 30. And early Thursday, the mayor sounded hopeful during his weekly radio interview, telling WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that it was not yet “time to assess blame because there’s still a way to resolve this.”
“Its June 22nd this morning; we’ve got precisely eight days, so that’s when the proof will be in the pudding,” he said.
The impasse between the Senate and the Assembly is born of principle and political pragmatism. The Assembly had passed a two-year extension of the school control plan in May, but linked it to an extension of a raft of local taxes due to expire later this year. But Republicans in the Senate did not like that linkage, and would only vote for mayoral control if the number of charter schools in the state was increased, an idea that was, in turn, a nonstarter for Assembly Democrats.
The reason for their allegiances are at least partly financial: Charter schools and their supporters have given significant campaign funding to Republican candidates and Cuomo; public school unions have consistently backed Democrats in the Assembly.
In each of the last two years, the Senate has been stingy with de Blasio, giving him only one-year extensions, after granting his predecessor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a six-year extension in 2009. This year, Heastie staked out a position that mayoral control should not be bargained over, precipitating the game of political chicken — something de Blasio, who has a chilly relationship with Cuomo and Senate Republicans, applauded Thursday.
“You know, I was a legislator — there’s always a path to yes,” de Blasio said.
One possible deal being discussed would not grant more charters, giving Heastie a partial win, but would change the rules for counting defunct charters, allowing Flanagan to claim some type of victory, too.
For his part, Cuomo said that he was continuing to talk with Heastie and other interested parties, and would call the Legislature back for a special session if there was an agreement between both chambers. The stakes would seem to rise if de Blasio actually loses control on July 1, including for Cuomo, who is said to have presidential ambitions and has staked his reputation on banishing dysfunction from the state capital.
The governor saw his streak of on-time or close to it budgets broken in April, but still said Thursday that he was “very pleased” with a session that included accomplishments like a tuition-free college plan and raising the age of criminal responsibility. But, he conceded, “we are not going to agree on everything always.”
Including, of course, on who was to blame for the collapse of talks Wednesday. Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Heastie, said that “the governor is entitled to his own opinion” but called Cuomo’s remarks “an unfair characterization of this process.”
“We share in his frustration,” Whyland said. “We’re moving on and trying to get this resolved.”
Senate Republicans echoed the determination to get a deal, and the dismissal of the governor’s critique.
“No one can say that our Senate majority hasn’t done the people’s business,” Reif said.