Bills to watch in the final week of the 2021 legislative session

State Capitol
State Capitol
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The state Capitol in Albany.

Bills to watch in the final week of the 2021 legislative session

A lot of big proposals remain up in the air as June 10 approaches.
June 11, 2021

That’s all folks. 

The scheduled end of session came Thursday (or early Friday morning if you’re in the Assembly), bringing to a close a year of both major progressive victories and other disappointments. But that doesn’t mean that lawmakers can’t come back over the summer or later in the year to pass things that didn’t make it over the finish. 

In classic Albany fashion, the day began with reports that lawmakers and the governor reached a deal to pass the Clean Slate Act and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s bill to split the MTA leadership position. By the end, the deal fell through and neither passed. 

Assembly Member Tom Abinanti told City & State that he drafted a memo he sent to leadership and circulated among colleagues Thursday evening summarizing his concerns with the bill, including issues with removing full background checks for certain jobs and the definition of crimes eligible for sealing, and seeking a revision. He said his memo had an impact on members who had any reservations about the bill. “A large majority of the Assembly members support the principle,” Abinanti said. “But the details of the bill are problematic.” He said many expected the bill would not come for a vote because of the issues, but other Assembly sources said it was unclear whether or not there were actually not enough votes.

Clean Slate wound up being just one of several progressive agenda items that falled. Several parole reform bills stalled, the Assembly never passed sexual harassment reform legislation and major climate change bills never moved. The year overall had some big wins, from repealing the walking while trans ban and legalizing marijuana, but a lackluster end of session left some disappointed. 

State Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins in her closing remarks, declared the year a success and celebrated the many bills passed, including in the past week. But she also seemed to leave the window open for her chamber to reconvene to address items that weren’t voted on. While it’s not very common, keep an eye out.

Here’s how other big end-of-session agenda items landed.

Criminal justice

Three parole reforms awaiting passage by both chambers could make it easier for people over age 55 to get paroled as well as incarcerated people more generally, and make it harder to revoke someone’s parole. In the end, only one parole reform bill passed, much to the chagrin of criminal justice reform advocates, who pushed for passage through the last day. A fourth bill would automatically seal convictions after people serve their prison term and any probation. Although lawmakers said they reached a deal to pass the Clean Slate Act after a drafting error required fixing and a message of necessity from Cuomo to pass, session ended without a new version even getting introduced.

Passed: Less is More

Not passed: Elderly parole, Fair and Timely Parole, Clean Slate

Adult Survivors Act

This bill is modeled after the Child Victims Act, which suspended statutes of limitations to allow survivors of sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits. Their advocates want people who were attacked as legal adults to also have a chance to take advantage of a one-year look-back window. The state Senate passed the bill unanimously – but the Assembly never voted on it before breaking for the year. Sources say Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie had reservations about the bill, and those reservations seem to have won out since he never allowed it to come to the floor for a vote, despite fairly widespread support.

Gun control

After the state Senate passed a package of gun control, it fell to the Assembly to act one them. New Yorkers could sue gun manufacturers for civil damages under one bill. Two pieces of legislation aim to make it harder to assemble so-called “ghost guns” by buying a key part called the receiver without a serial number, while another would criminalize the possession of ghost guns. A fourth bill passed by the state Senate would enact a 10-day waiting period for all gun purchases no matter how quickly a background check gets done.

Passed: Gun manufacturers, ghost guns

Not passed: Background checks

Environment

Activists are disappointed that legislators did not pass any high-profile bills addressing climate change this year, but several other items that were still on the table wound up dead as well. This includes a bill making it easier for electric vehicle manufacturers to sell directly to consumers, which has not passed either chamber. Another bill aims to establish a clean fuel standard that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by vehicles through the use of bio methane that has not passed either chamber. A legislative dark horse worth watching is a bill that would make it harder to use former fossil fuel plants to mine cryptocurrency, which requires lots of electricity to create. 

Not passed: Electric vehicles, clean fuel standard, cryptocurrency

Appointments

Perhaps most contentious is the nomination of Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas to the Court of Appeals. Singas’ appointment is being opposed by public defenders and left-wing activists. Despite opposition from a handful of progressive lawmakers who voted against her appointment, the state Senate approved her nomination. The state Senate also confirmed Cuomo’s former counsel Steven Cohen to the Board of Commissioners at the Port Authority following Cohen's abrupt resignation as vice chair of the authority several years ago. And Cuomo’s bill to split the MTA leadership only passed the Assembly, but the possibility remains that the Senate may act over the summer. His pick for chair, Sarah Feinberg, didn’t get confirmed, but if the legislation is approved, she and Janno Leiber, who he tapped for CEO, could get the Senate thumbs up before current Chair and CEO Pat Foy leaves.

Sexual harassment

After landmark changes to strengthen the state’s sexual harassment laws in 2019, lawmakers and survivor advocates are looking to further build on those protections with another slate of legislation.The state Senate passed several bills already, including making all public employees subject to the Human Rights Law and protecting employees who sign a nondisclosure agreement but speak anyway.Another bill would make it explicitly illegal for employers to release personnel documents to retaliate against someone who has made harassment allegations. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes released a statement pointing to past action the chamber has taken on sexual harassment and said members continue to work on the issue even though the chamber didn’t pass any related bills this year. The statement was lambasted by the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which expressed disappointment the Assembly didn’t act.

Not passed: Human Rights Law, nondisclosure agreements, personnel file retaliation

Reforming the Joint Commission on Public Ethics

In the wake of questions about Cuomo’s $5 million book deal on handling the pandemic, lawmakers have a renewed drive to reform JCOPE, the state’s beleaguered ethics agency. While a state constitutional amendment is needed to totally overhaul the commission, a package of bills that passed the state Senate seeks to improve its operations in the meantime. The legislation would update JCOPE appointments to make them less partisan, simplifying the process to launch an investigation and make it easier to remove the executive director. 

Not passed: Appointment reform, investigation votes, removing executive director

Election reforms

The state Senate passed a slate of election reform legislationback in January, including bills that would permit the counting of absentee ballots to begin earlier, permit absentee ballot drop boxes, create an absentee ballot tracking system and add more early voting sites. In the end, only two of those bills made it through the Assembly. The state Senate has also passed legislation that would allow someone who votes at the wrong polling place to still have part of their ballot count, addressing the so-called “wrong church, wrong pew” problem. 

Passed: Absentee counting, early voting sites

Not passed: Absentee drop boxes, absentee tracking, “Wrong church, wrong pew”

Miscellaneous

The state Senate has passed legislation to strengthen antitrust laws. A recently introduced bill would fund a potential impeachment trial of Cuomo. A bill to make it easier to convert commercial properties into residences would create a program to spend the $100 million allocated to buy such properties for conversion. Lawmakers wanted to create a lockbox for money from opioid settlements to be used for addiction services. Another bill would prevent the state from using certain hybrid voting machines, which combine touch screen and paper ballots, that election experts say pose a security risk. Many labor activists were hoping to see the so-called “SWEAT” Act, which would protect workers against wage theft, pass in the Legislature again after the governor vetoed it in 2019. Lawmakers also considered extending to-go cocktails for another year.

Passed: Opioid lockbox, commercial property conversions, impeachment funding

Not passed: Antitrust, voting machines, SWEAT Act, to-go cocktails

Rebecca C. Lewis
is deputy state politics reporter at City & State.
Zach Williams
is senior state politics reporter at City & State.
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