The top end-of-session issues for state lawmakers

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock
State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have a lot on the table on the final day of session.

The top end-of-session issues for state lawmakers

Deals on marijuana legalizations and other top issues remain elusive.
June 18, 2019

State lawmakers are passing a landmark bill addressing climate change, but several high-profile issues remain unresolved heading into the final scheduled day of this year’s legislative session.

It was unclear by late Tuesday evening whether lawmakers had passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, as lawmakers stayed late to pass as many bills as they could in the final days of the legislative session. Lawmakers are expected to continue that effort on Wednesday by passing a range of progressive legislation, including changes to state laws on sexual harassment, an expansion of farmworkers’ rights, and a renewal of the state program that helps minority- and women-owned enterprises get public contracts. Some of these proposals could pass as stand-alone pieces of legislation, but others could get pushed into an omnibus bill that lawmakers would aim to pass sometime Wednesday or early Thursday.

If a “big ugly” materializes, it would give lawmakers some political cover in voting for controversial issues like legalizing recreational marijuana. However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could also gain an extra edge in negotiations with lawmakers by insisting on the inclusion of provisions like an expansion of a state cap on charter schools. The give-and-take in final negotiations will be limited, however, since lawmakers have already passed some controversial proposals, including a bill allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and sweeping changes to the state’s rent laws, efforts that illustrate lawmakers’ willingness to risk a gubernatorial veto by passing two-way deals reached by the state Senate and Assembly.

Past history suggests that nothing is a lock in the state Capitol until it is officially signed into law – and there is even talk that state lawmakers could stay in Albany through the end of the week, a decision that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins could make jointly. Here is City & State’s updated rundown of where things stand on key issues.

Marijuana legalization

It is unclear whether lawmakers are crafting a deal on marijuana legalization with the input of Cuomo. The Buffalo News reported Tuesday that lawmakers are considering a two-way deal that would require them to reconvene on Friday, June 21, in order to satisfy a required three-day waiting period for new legislation. By keeping Cuomo on the sidelines, legislators hope to pass a bill more to their liking. This could include provisions that would earmark marijuana tax revenues for communities of color affected by the war on drugs, the expungement of marijuana arrest records and funding for law enforcement and public health education that aims to lure ambivalent lawmakers to support the proposal.

If lawmakers choose to work with Cuomo, they will need a message of necessity to waive the three-day waiting requirement. Several sticking points remain with the governor, including how revenues would be used and whether local communities would opt in or opt out of allowing retail sales.

There is also a third option on the marijuana front. With the passage of the legalization bill still up in the air, state Sen. Jamaal Bailey and Peoples-Stokes have introduced a back-up bill that would decriminalize smoking marijuana in public and establish a mechanism for vacating certain marijuana offenses.

However, activists are urging lawmakers to stay the course and reach a broader deal with Cuomo. “The newly proposed marijuana ‘decriminalization’ bill is in no way a viable alternative to comprehensive marijuana reform,” said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a June 18 statement. Lawmakers and Cuomo are continuing to push for a broader deal – though it appeared on Tuesday afternoon that Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, sponsor of the bill in the chamber, were also negotiating by themselves on the issue.

Climate change

Lawmakers have reached a deal on a bill that will codifies the state’s climate goals into law. The newly revised bill – first reported by the State of Politics blog – will require that a minimum of 70% of the state’s electricity be generated by 2030 from renewable sources, reaching 100% by 2050. While the bill will make New York a leading state on climate change policy, the legislation includes some big changes from its original version, which had been called the Climate and Community Protection Act. Changes to the legislation include slowing the pace of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, increasing the speed of the state’s transition to using renewable energy, and tweaks that give the Legislature more influence over a climate action council that would help determine implementation of the legislation. The final version of the bill has also been stripped of prevailing age requirements for renewable energy projects.

Criminal justice reform

The state budget included new limits on cash bail and other criminal justice reforms, but lawmakers are still looking to pass several additional proposals. This includes legislation that would restrict the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, a proposal to give automatic parole to elderly inmates and an effort to make disciplinary records of NYPD officers more transparent. Activists have been pushing lawmakers to pass the reforms, but they remain up in the air on the final day of the session. Cuomo told WNCY on Tuesday morning that a deal could happen, but he remains concerned about what the cost would be of shifting inmates away from solitary confinement. "I'm not in favor of building a billion dollars in new jails,” he said. Activists have urged that cost savings be achieved through the opposite approach of closing down prisons – an issue that may be difficult for a governor who has already been criticized this year for the economic effects of closing upstate correctional facilities. Activists also pushed back at Cuomo’s comments on Tuesday that suggested the proposal would require new prisons and that the legislation would hurt the state’s bottom line. “President Trump famously said he had the largest-ever crowd size for his inauguration, despite widely accepted estimates showing a laughably small turnout,” read a statement from the HALT Solitary campaign. “This is no different, except that the consequences of anyone taking Gov. Cuomo’s comments on the HALT Solitary Confinement Act seriously would be far, far worse. The governor has a clear agenda and he is playing with numbers.”

Sexual harassment

Cuomo and lawmakers have reached a deal on changing the state’s “severe and pervasive” standard to prove sexual harassment. The Wall Street Journal reported that the new standard will require that employees prove they experienced “inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment.” It remains to be seen whether lawmakers can pass the full package of bills that lawmakers have proposed in a year when they held hearings on sexual harassment for the first time in more than two decades. A search of legislative records shows that most of those bills have stalled in recent weeks, but Cuomo and lawmakers have agreed on a bill that aim to ensure pay equity between men and women and another proposal to raise the statute of limitations on rape in the second and third degrees.

LGBTQ rights

A proposal to legalize gestational surrogacy, which can help some same-sex couples have children, remains stalled in the Assembly, despite ongoing conversations about the bill between Cuomo and key lawmakers like Assemblywoman Deborah Glick. Her resolve though could be undermined Tuesday by the revelation that she promised her support for a version of the bill when seeking the political endorsement of the Stonewall Democratic Club of NYC last year. Either way, the impasse has not kept Cuomo and lawmakers from agreeing to abolish the “gay panic defense,” which means that criminal defendants can no longer cite as a criminal defense the shock of learning someone is LGBTQ.

Labor

Lawmakers are nearing a deal with Cuomo on a proposal to expand the use of the prevailing wage, but a final sticking point is whether or not New York City would be exempt from the new rules, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday night. Cuomo is pushing for the carve-out, but lawmakers are continuing to hold out after offering concessions over the weekend. Their original proposal required that workers on any project getting state financial support be paid a prevailing wage. Amendments to the bill submitted over the weekend would allow a project to receive 30% of its funding from public sources before the requirement kicks in. Private colleges and solar projects would also be exempted.

Separately, state Sen. Jessica Ramos, the chair of the Labor Committee, told City & State Monday afternoon that lawmakers would vote Wednesday on a bill that would dramatically increase the labor rights of farm workers statewide, including making them eligible for overtime pay. Opponents say the proposal would negatively affect family farms by giving workers overtime pay and the right to strike. A provision in the proposal would also grant farm workers collective bargaining rights statewide, an issue that a recent court decision made moot.

Education

One thing the Legislature will not act on this year is addressing the admissions process for New York City specialized high schools, though an Assembly committee did vote to bring one proposal to the full chamber on Tuesday. Lawmakers have held hearings on the issue, but Stewart-Cousins said on June 14 there are no talks to get it done this year.

Increasing a cap on the number of charter schools also remains unlikely in the final week of the session, though Cuomo supports the idea. Instead, Democrats could pass as many as four bills that would limit charters. This includes a proposal to allow more local school districts in New York City to block new charters. Other proposals would prohibit charters from expanding their grade levels as students age, bar them from using public funds to rent space in private buildings and implement new oversight of charters. State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery is pushing for a bill that aims to limit the “school to prison pipeline” by reforming disciplinary procedures.

Minority- and women-owned enterprises

The state program to help MWBEs get a share of state contracts will expire at the end of this year, and Cuomo and lawmakers appear to have reached a deal to renew it. A top sticking point had been a proposal from Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, who is leading efforts in the Assembly on the issue, to eliminate a cap on the personal net worth on people eligible for the program. The latest version of the bill raises that cap from $3.5 million to $15 million. Lawmakers had originally tried to pass a two-way omnibus bill that would have forced the governor’s hand on the issue. Bichotte said the final deal will be voted on Wednesday.

Other issues

A bill that would decriminalize prostitution appears unlikely to pass this year, especially since Cuomo told WAMC on June 14 that he has not heard a persuasive case for the proposal.

The governor has said ever since the budget passed that he wanted to address the issue of capital projects this session. His effective control over the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York means that he can dangle funding for projects in lawmakers’ districts, but legislators do not appear to be biting.

Both houses of the Legislature passed a bill Tuesday that would prohibit employers from inquiring about salary histories with prospective employees.

A deal to legalize mobile sports betting statewide faces long odds in the Assembly, after passing the Senate last week.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State and its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media.
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