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With Dems in charge, NY adopts progressive bills


The 2019 legislative session was among the most productive in several years, with the passage of bills that ranged from strengthening abortion rights to allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. If you’re a liberal Democrat, there’s a lot to like. Conservative Republicans are not as pleased.

The 2019 session ended when the Assembly gaveled out shortly after 7 a.m. on June 20.

Governor Andrew Cuomo took a victory lap after a session that saw the codification of the abortion rights in the US Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into New York law; an end to most cash bail; new rights for women, renters, transgender New Yorkers, and farmworkers; a permanent property tax cap; an end to single-use plastic bags; and a ban on the declawing of cats. And New York now has the most ambitious goals in the nation for reducing carbon emissions in the next few decades.

Cuomo said the achievements make New York the “social progressive capital of the United States of America.” He credits the all Democratic-led Legislature – the first time there’s been a decisive Democratic majority in the Senate and Assembly in 40 years – and a moment of change that he said was spurred as a backlash to the policies of President Donald Trump.

“President Trump has frightened people,” Cuomo said. “People now demand protection in response to the direction of the federal government. The state government is here to protect people when the federal government won’t.”

Cuomo found himself sidelined on some of the negotiations for the first time ever in his governorship. The Senate and Assembly agreed on their own to strengthen New York City’s rent laws and extend the option to upstate. That did not please the governor, but he agreed to sign the new rent regulations into law anyway.

The governor, in his day-after news conference, also took a couple of shots at the new leadership in the Legislature when he discussed a few items that did not get finished in the session.

A measure to legalize adult recreational marijuana failed when the Senate could not come up with enough votes to pass it. The governor had asked lawmakers to include it in the state budget, which might offer more political cover for a controversial topic.

The bill did not become part of the budget, and in recent weeks, Cuomo refused requests from Democrats in the Senate to help convince senators who were on the fence on the issue.

“I'm not going to say, 'I told you so,' but I'm going to say everything but,” Cuomo said.

Advocates for legalizing marijuana said they blame the governor as well as the leadership in the Senate and Assembly for the bill’s failure. Kassandra Frederique with the Drug Policy Alliance said all three leaders are “at fault.”

Cuomo and the Legislature instead agreed to further decriminalize cannabis, something Frederique said is a poor substitute.

Late on the final night of the session, a bill to allow automatic registration for voting had to be withdrawn after lawmakers realized that a glitch in the language would have allowed undocumented immigrants to vote. Cuomo called that an “amateur mistake.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first woman and African-American woman to lead the chamber, was saluted with cheers and a standing ovation. In her speech to the chamber, she said Democrats proved their detractors wrong.

“Over the past month, we fought to break down barriers, and we’ve chosen the path of creating opportunities,” she said.

Stewart-Cousins quickly developed a tight working relationship with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The two even referred to themselves as “the wonder twins.”

Republicans, who are in the minority party and whose ranks have been greatly diminished, are dismayed by many of the measures. Senator Jim Tedisco, a Republican from the Schenectady area known for his outspokenness, summed up how he views the legislative session in a speech on the Senate floor just a few days before the session ended. Tedisco posted the speech on YouTube that he titled, “Six Months of Hell for Taxpayers in Albany.”

“Social experimentation,” Tedisco said. “Either tax something, or legalize it.”

Tedisco predicted the new policies will only intensify the pace of New Yorkers' out-migration to other states.

The state’s Business Council is also not a fan of the recently concluded session. In a statement, the group said the measures “drastically impact New Yorkers in many negative ways.”

Karen DeWitt is Albany correspondent for WXXI News. Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal will return next week.