With a week left in Albany’s 2019 legislative session, lawmakers are scrambling to reach consensus on high-stakes issues many Democratic members campaigned on — but may not be able to deliver, despite controlling both chambers.
Under a deal reached Tuesday night, rent regulations will be renewed and strengthened, but many other proposed measures remain unresolved, including:
Legalizing Recreational Marijuana
After comfortably securing a third term, Gov. Andrew Cuomo listed marijuana legalization as one of his top priorities, vowing to get it done within the first 100 days. However, Democrats couldn’t reach agreement on how New York would legalize and regulate marijuana in time to package the proposal in the state’s $175.5 billion April budget, where many bills get decided.
The Legislature is still pushing to secure a marijuana legalization package even as the governor repeatedly casts doubt on lawmakers’ ability to collect enough support among their ranks.
The governor isn’t actively participating in negotiations, Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) said in a radio interview Wednesday.
“We’ll see whether we can actually get this done,” Krueger said. “And with all due respect, if we can’t get it done, which we might not, everyone will know it’s because the governor wouldn’t play.”
Senate Democrats discussed legalization Wednesday during a closed-door conference. But the body didn’t come to a decision on the next steps, according to people familiar with the conversation.
Meanwhile, some legislators are preparing a Plan B by expanding New York’s highly restrictive medical marijuana program if legalization efforts fail.
Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants
Undocumented New Yorkers inched closer to getting access to driver’s licenses restored with the Assembly’s passage on Wednesday of a bill that would reverse a 2001 executive order by then-Gov. George Pataki requiring proof of immigration status.
The fate of the driver’s license bill, which is supported by Cuomo, now lies with the Senate.
Despite the Senate’s cushy 39-member Democratic majority in the 63-member Senate, prospects for the so-called #GreenLightNY bill remain dim. That’s because six Long Island lawmakers remain holdouts. The Senate is expected to privately discuss the bill before the week ends.
Scaling Back Solitary Confinement
Passed along with the state budget were landmark proposals to eliminate cash bail for many crimes and rework the rules of pretrial discovery to give defense attorneys adequate time to look at evidence against their client.
Advocates and some lawmakers want to take on additional criminal justice reforms, even though complaints among members of fatigue on the issue linger.
Proposals to limit the use of solitary confinement and to codify the state attorney general’s role as a special prosecutor when someone dies following an encounter with a member of law enforcement are inching along. It remains to be seen, though, whether both houses can come to an agreement and bring the bills to a vote by next week.
Lawmakers and the governor have expressed a willingness to eliminate existing statutes of limitation for some forms of sexual assault and to make it easier to pursue legal claims for sexual harassment cases. But differences remain over how to achieve these goals.
Under existing law, workplace sexual harassment claims have to show “severe or pervasive” misconduct, something lawmakers and advocates say is difficult to prove in court. Both the governor and legislators want to eliminate the standard.
Cuomo on Wednesday also renewed his push to eliminate the five-year statute of limitation for second- and third-degree rape charges, calling it “an abject dereliction of justice” during an Albany news conference.
Cuomo’s proposal is narrower than the one being pursued by Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx) and Assemblymember Aravella Simotas (D-Queens), which would also eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal sexual acts in the second and third degree, such as oral sex when a person can’t consent.
Lawmakers appear to have reached an agreement to eliminate religious exemptions for vaccinations, amid an outbreak that the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says has resulted in at least 588 confirmed cases in New York City since September.
The Senate is expected to vote on Thursday to end the practice, with the Assembly slated to follow in the coming days. The agreement comes days after a Siena College poll showed overwhelming support for ending the religious exemption to vaccines.
“It’s a public health crisis. I understand freedom of religion. We all do. We respect it. I’ve heard the anti-vaxxers’ theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk,” Cuomo told reporters Wednesday.
The Secret Weapon
The most powerful weapon in the governor’s end-of-session negotiating arsenal is a wonky budgetary item that doles out hundreds of millions of dollars for capital projects in lawmakers’ districts through an obscure state agency.
Departing from his practice in previous years, Cuomo left out the State and Municipal Facilities program from this year’s state budget, giving him leverage over lawmakers who like to tout the funding they can bring home from Albany.
Last year, the program funded skate parks, community centers, upgrades to schools computer and playgrounds.
Of the $508 million in pork awarded last year, most of it came from the State and Municipal Facilities program, which is widely derided as legislative slush fund, according to an analysis by the fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy.
Legislative leaders and the governor pick who and what gets the funding — but the Cuomo-controlled Dormitory Authority administers it.
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