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Leaders fell short new drug law { June 20 2003 }

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June 20, 2003
Albany Leaders Say They Fell Just Short on Drug-Law Deal

ALBANY, June 19 For the third straight year, New York's two top legislative leaders failed today to break a protracted deadlock with Gov. George E. Pataki over changing the state's penalties for drug crimes that all sides agree are overly harsh.

As lawmakers in Albany moved closer to wrapping up their session by this evening, Mr. Pataki and the legislative leaders Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican Senate majority leader, and Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the State Assembly said they had fallen just short of striking a deal to soften the Rockefeller-era drug laws, something all three men have characterized as a priority.

Each of them, however, said there was a chance they would return to Albany, sometime before the end of the calendar year, to address the issue. "There is a lot of work still to be done, and that work is not going to be completed in the next few hours," Mr. Pataki said. "But I think if we continue work, continue to have staffs and counsel work over the next few days, we have made more progress and are closer than I've ever seen."

Opponents of the laws, which set mandatory minimum sentences even for minor crimes, saw this year as favorable to their cause. It is the 30th anniversary of the passage of the laws, under Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, during the height of a crime wave linked to the drug trade.

Longtime advocates for change, as well as Andrew M. Cuomo, who lost a bid for governor last fall, and Russell Simmons, the hip-hop businessman, emerged to form a broad coalition.

But in the end, the privileged sort of diplomacy afforded Mr. Simmons, who flew to Albany twice over the last month to lobby Mr. Pataki, Mr. Silver and Mr. Bruno personally, may have had an opposite effect.

In a attempt to come up with a last-minute compromise, Mr. Simmons and his associates met for more than seven hours behind closed doors with the three men in the State Capitol on Wednesday but emerged with no concrete agreement.

By this morning, the sides were back in their separate corners, resigned to another bitter round of blame and recriminations. People familiar with the meeting characterized it as raucous. Those present said that at one point, Mr. Bruno stood up to leave and had a heated exchange with Mr. Simmons, who tried to persuade him to stay.

Others said the seven-hour session was marked by shouting matches as emotions ran hot, and by standoffs that seemed to leave a bad taste in some people's mouths.

Mr. Bruno played down his argument with Mr. Simmons. "We had an exchange," he said. "We communicated with each other."

Good-government groups and others, meanwhile, bemoaned the fact that while Mr. Simmons, a political neophyte with money and media access, was holding court with the three most powerful elected officials in the state, lawmakers of both parties with a vested interest in the issue could not get in. Indeed, Jeffrion L. Aubry, a longtime Democratic assemblyman from Queens, was sprawled with reporters and lobbyists on the dusty stone steps outside Mr. Pataki's office waiting for any shred of news.

Last night, Mr. Simmons said he was disappointed that they had not been able to reach a final agreement. "I feel it is disservice to the people of New York that 85 percent of the people want this law changed," he said, "and that it is these guys' job to live up to the people's will."

One sticking point seemed to be who should have the larger voice in sentencing: district attorneys or judges. A draft bill in the Assembly seemed in line with some of Mr. Pataki's priorities, though the governor, who has said he is pushing for a fair and balanced law, wants increased penalties for felons who use guns or children or who work as part of a criminal organization.

"If everything doesn't get agreed on," Mr. Bruno said, "nothing works and that is what happened."

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