Session wraps up in Albany

Rounding up the week’s political news.

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins takes questions from reporters as the session winds down.

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins takes questions from reporters as the session winds down. NYS Senate Media Services

The end of the year’s legislative session got started with a bang… and a bear. In an incident reminiscent of the coyote that became the darling of the 2018 budget negotiations, a black bear found his way into an Albany park just a few blocks from the Capitol and later found himself stuck up a tree. For a few hours, politicos were enraptured by the wayward wanderer. All ended well for the bear, but unfortunately, it was just the start of a very long week for lawmakers. For more on what they got done, keep reading.

Lawmakers approve gun safety measures

As they wrapped up legislating for the year, lawmakers in Albany agreed on a package of 10 bills meant to strengthen the state’s already tight gun laws and address violent extremism online. Perhaps most significantly, the state Legislature approved a bill that would require licensing to purchase and use a semiautomatic rifle, effectively raising the age to buy one from 18 to 21. When signed into law, New York will join only a handful of states that have placed a higher age requirement on the AR-15 style weapons, though other states have faced issues over the constitutionality of their laws. Another bill will, in most cases, prevent the sale to civilians of body vests – the type like the alleged Buffalo shooter wore that protected him from the subdual attempts of a retired police officer. Lawmakers also passed bills to strengthen the state’s Red Flag law, which permits the confiscation of a person’s gun if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others by requiring law enforcement to file for an extreme risk protection order in those instances. Another piece of legislation will create a task force focused on violent extremist domestic terrorism fueled by racist ideology, with another making public threats of mass violence a crime. 

Strengthening abortion access tops priorities

State lawmakers tackled another national issue in abortion rights, as the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. New York had already codified the right to an abortion in state law in 2019, but the state Legislature approved several new bills that would protect abortion providers against miscondunct allegations and out-of-state legal action in cases where they offer care to out-of-state patients coming from areas where abortion may become illegal. Lawmakers also voted on other bills meant to strengthen the protections in the state, which were already among the strongest in the nation. However, a state constitutional amendment that would have codified various equality rights, including against discrimination based on pregnancy status and reproductive care choices, did not make it over the finish line despite strong pushes from advocates to get the ball rolling on the multiyear process to amend the state Constitution. 

Voting rights come to New York

Rounding out the national topics that lawmakers took up was voting rights as they approved the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, named for its federal counterpart that so far has failed to pass in the U.S. Senate. The landmark bill would codify a series of voting rights protections into state law in the wake of the recent gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent rollback of national protections. If signed into law, the legislation would represent the most comprehensive and strongest state-level protections in the country, with its sponsors looking now to the Congress to act on its own version of the bill. 

Late night negotiating

In true Albany fashion, bills that seemed dead found new sparks of life in the waning hours of the legislative session as lawmakers continued their marathon bill passing. On the state Senate side, a two-year moratorium on upstate cryptocurrency mining that passed in the Assembly appeared to be a lost cause before a late-night update showed that lawmakers had managed to reach an agreement. First came reports of its revival, then the actual passage of the legislation in the wee hours of the morning. On the Assembly side, the trajectory of the Clean Slate Act changed rapidly in the course of a day, with reporting revealing opposition from the state Education Department creating hesitancy among some members. By the evening, the bill sponsor revealed that she had reached an agreement with education officials to get the legislation that would automatically seal the records of many New Yorkers with criminal convictions after a certain period of time. Once on its way to the graveyard, the bill suddenly was on the verge of approval.

Mixed bag for Eric Adams

The end of the legislative session in Albany brought with it some victories and some losses for New York City Mayor Eric Adams. Notably, he got an extension on mayoral control of city schools, but for only two years and with a change to the overall governance structure that he did not approve of. However, lawmakers also passed an extension of the city’s speed camera program, keeping that in municipal hands as well. And the Legislature voted to approve the Public Housing Preservation Fund, which would open up billions in much needed funding for the city’s decrepit public housing system. But Adams didn’t get a victory when it came to a controversial tax break for developers to incentivize the building of affordable housing, which lawmakers decided to let expire before heading home.