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With less than a week left in the session, and in the eleventh hour before rent regulations expire, the state legislature was still weighing several key bills this weekend. But insiders say the real debate will, as usual, happen behind closed doors.

“We’re in classic three-men-in-a room mode,” said State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, regarding Governor George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “Everything is horse-trading.”

The most high-profile of these discussions involves the state’s rent laws. As of press time, Bruno and Silver had agreed to extend the current regs’ June 15 expiration date — but just for one day. Steven Greenberg, spokesperson for the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, says the final outcome is still anybody’s game. “Tenants have reason to be nervous,” he said, “but we’re hopeful that Assembly Speaker Silver will be persuasive.”

Silver is a vocal critic of vacancy decontrol, which allows landlords to deregulate empty apartments once their rent hits $2,000. Ironically, it was his 1997 backroom deal with Bruno and Pataki that extended decontrol — a compromise that has proven poisonous to tenants [see “The Stealth War,” City Limits, June 2003]. According to the Rent Guidelines Board, 24,370 apartments have been deregulated since decontrol started in 1993. Tenants and Neighbors argues that number is low because it counts only voluntary landlord reports and says the actual number is closer to 100,000. The Speaker’s now pushing to eliminate vacancy decontrol altogether, but it remains to be seen what, if anything, he can use for leverage.

The proposed repeal of the 1973 Rockefeller drug-sentencing laws is itself a long shot for passage. Though it’s been on the progressive agenda for some time, this year’s “Drop the Rock” campaign moved it to the short list of key bills. But advocates who had previously sided with the Assembly leadership’s version of reforms already feel like Silver’s given away too much. “Most resolutions come down to compromise,” says Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York. “That’s all the more reason the Assembly should have [started out] strong.”

Meanwhile, a popular bill to clean up brownfields is all but finalized. After five difficult years in the making, it already has bipartisan support. “If all goes well, this whole miserable process will come to an end in a week,” says Jeff Jones, communications director for Environmental Advocates of New York. At this point, he says, only the governor is stalling. Jones acknowledges that the bill could still get watered down, but hopes it’s too far along.

Child welfare advocates say the same about their bill, which would allow cities to try a “dual track” system for handling less serious allegations of child abuse or neglect. Mirroring programs in place in more than a dozen states, it would encourage caseworkers to refer these families to services rather than launch punitive investigations.

Ultimately, some say, the time for major trade-offs on rent regs may be gone. John Fisher, who runs TenantNet, a Web resource, thinks the rent law decision — a straight extender — is a done deal. He’s frustrated that Democrats didn’t push harder when they had the chance. “You don’t want to pit tenants against another worthy issue,” he said, “but you have to keep asking — why do we always end up last?”

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