After winning control of state government for the first time in over a decade, Democratic lawmakers flexed their political muscle by wrapping up what many were calling a historic year of legislative accomplishments, placing New York at the front of a progressive agenda that addressed tenant protections, climate change, criminal justice reform and sexual harassment. And that was just in the last few weeks. Earlier in the year, the state passed some seismic bills on voting reforms, congestion pricing, the Reproductive Health Act, the Child Victims Act, and a plastic bag ban, to name a few.
Nonetheless, for some liberals there were missed opportunities, namely the failure to legalize marijuana, a measure that supporters argued would have created jobs and ended decades of policing policies that disproportionately punished those in minority and low-income communities. Instead, they had to settle for so-called "decriminalization," which made possession of up to two ounces of marijuana a violation rather than a crime.
In classic Albany form, the 2019 session was not without drama or suspense. Though they hoped to end the session on Wednesday, the official last day of voting, legislators wound up working overtime into Friday morning. In the end, they managed to avoid the big ugly, the maligned capitol tradition of cramming in disparate bills, which invites closed-door negotiations and horse trading. Instead lawmakers put together what some referred to as a "little" or "slim ugly."
Whatever you call it, there was still at least one eyebrow-raising item in the package: the appointment of Robert Mujica, Cuomo's budget director, to the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Because Mujica does not meet the requirement that board members live in the area serviced by the MTA, lawmakers had to carve out an exception for him.
In another important provision, which was closely watched by the real estate industry, the rent law was amended to say that market units built under 421-a, or its successor, the Affordable New York program, would remain deregulated and not fall under rent stabilization.
After the Senate finished their voting, Assembly members worked through the wee hours of Friday morning before leaders delivered closing comments and finally ended the session at around 7:15 a.m.
— Yuh-Line Niou (@yuhline) June 21, 2019
Our session ends with a long 22 going on 23 hour day.
— Yuh-Line Niou (@yuhline) June 21, 2019
— Carl E. Heastie (@CarlHeastie) June 21, 2019
So what were the major bills that passed in the last days of the session?
The sweeping set of new rent regulations passed by the state this month dramatically strengthened protections for rent-stabilized tenants, rolling back decades of landlord-friendly rules that made it easier to evict tenants and raise rents. Not only did most of the proposals pass, lawmakers were able to reach a deal before the June 15th deadline. Going forward, the laws will no longer expire, but look for progressives and tenant activists to make another push for a “good cause” eviction bill, which failed and would have extended tenant protections in some cases to market-rate tenants.
New York enacted one of the most ambitious climate change plans in the country by creating a goal of becoming a “net-zero” carbon emission economy by 2050. That would mean reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85% and offsetting the remaining 15% with carbon dioxide-removal measures like mass tree-planting. Despite being hailed by climate change activists as a major win, environmental justice groups took issue with watering down the language of the bill that sought to protect the most vulnerable communities, which are often poor and populated by people of color. Manhattan State Senator Robert Jackson vowed to “fill these gaps” next year.
Driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants
Similar to rent reform, the push to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in New York was a years-in-the-making victory for progressive lawmakers and activists, who intensified their pressure in the last few months and won by a narrow vote in the Senate. The passage of the so-called “Green Light” bill prompted heated debates about immigrant rights and public safety, and featured some dramatic twists and turns. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who ostensibly supported the bill, also worked to undermine it, warning suburban senators through a proxy they could suffer electoral defeat in 2020 for backing it. And then, at the last moment, Cuomo also expressed concerns about federal agents tapping into the state’s database of undocumented immigrants and suggested he might veto the measure unless given assurances by the state solicitor general. Instead, the state attorney general, Letitia James, who oversees the solicitor general, stepped in and said the bill provided “ample protections” for immigrants. Cuomo eventually signed the bill, but not before taking both women to task in an unusual statement.
BREAKING: Andrew Cuomo's office says he will sign the bill allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses, which just passed the Senate. pic.twitter.com/DI3VxxaQln
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) June 18, 2019
Sexual harassment reform
On the heels of the #MeToo movement, New York passed various measures that add protections for victims of rape, assault and harassment, including lowering the state’s “severe or pervasive” standard for those who wish to take legal action against workplace harassment and extending the statute of limitations for rape in the second and third degree to 20 and 10 years respectively. Lawmakers credited the passage of the bills to the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which consisted of seven female legislators who had experienced or reported sexual misconduct in the state capitol. Cuomo was an out-front supporter of the bills, having worked with Time’s Up, the anti-harassment group that formed in the wake of the rape and harassment alleged against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. This month, actress Mira Sorvino joined the governor in an emotional press conference calling for the new laws.
— Mira Sorvino (@MiraSorvino) June 19, 2019
(Partial) decriminalization of marijuana
For those that sought full legalization, "decriminalization" was mostly seen as an insufficient consolation prize. In the end, New York fell short of setting up a regulatory framework for the marijuana industry that has been done in other states like California and Washington (see below). Still, the new law, which treats possession of up to two ounces of marijuana as a violation instead of a misdemeanor and expunges previous arrests for small possession charges, was a step forward in the eyes of many. Some criminal justice reform advocates, however, warned that the new law may still not do much to prevent police from doing routine street stops, often in neighborhoods of color.
Elimination of cash bail
New York abolished cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses, in what criminal justice reform advocates described as a game-changing measure for poor and working-class defendants. The movement to eliminate cash bail further galvanized in 2015 after Kalief Browder, 22, who had spent three years on Rikers Island as a teenager, committed suicide at his Bronx home. Browder had been arrested for stealing a backpack but was forced to do time in jail because his family was unable to raise his $3,000 bail. The robbery charge was eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
E-bikes and e-scooters legalized
In a win for tech companies and delivery workers, state lawmakers removed the ban on e-bikes and e-scooters, but with one big caveat for NYC residents: in Manhattan, e-scooter sharing companies are still prohibited because of congestion and safety concerns, and e-bikes are not permitted on the Hudson River Greenway. Each municipality will be allowed to decide how to regulate e-bikes and e-scooters. The passage of the bill was especially gratifying for low-wage delivery workers, who had argued that e-bikes were essential to their livelihoods. Under de Blasio administration, pedal-assisted e-bikes have been permitted, but delivery workers who rode e-bikes continued to run the risk of steep fines and having their bikes confiscated.
Eliminating religious exemptions for vaccinations
In the wake of the worst measles outbreak in two decades, New York joined four other states in ending religious exemptions for immunizations to attend daycares and schools. With more than 550 confirmed cases in New York City alone, Cuomo declared the epidemic a public health emergency. But even though a poll showed that New Yorkers largely supported the measure, the issue drew emotional outbursts as hundreds of opponents, many of them from the Orthodox Jewish community as well as nonreligious skeptics, descended on the capitol. After narrowly passing 77-53 in the Assembly, shouts of shame as well as profanities rained down lawmakers.
Bill passes 77 to 53. Activists not happy. pic.twitter.com/sWa9hXsdeo
— rachel silberstein (@RachelSilby) June 13, 2019
Reforms to the state’s registry of parents accused of child neglect
New York has been among a tiny minority of states requiring a particularly low burden of proof to get on a state list of parents accused of child neglect or abuse. Most of the parents on the registry are low-income parents of color. And once you are on this list, it’s hard to get off and it can limit parents’ employment opportunities for up to 28 years — even if a family court judge dismisses the case. The reforms passed now put New York in line with 41 other states in requiring a moderately higher standard of evidence in substantiating abuse or neglect cases. The legislation also allows for parents’ records of child neglect (not abuse) to be sealed to employers after 8 years for most jobs. Currently, parents on the registry are ineligible for jobs such as home health aides or working as a substance abuse counselor until the youngest child in their child neglect case turns 28.
So what bills didn't pass?
There are always a host of proposals that don't pass. Some, like bills that sought to decriminalize prostitution, had progressive-backing but were introduced too late in the session and needed more time for discussion. Others, like Mayor Bill de Blasio's request to eliminate the admissions test for specialized high schools, was a divisive issue that ultimately could not get sufficient backing from the Senate. A push by building-trade unions to expand the prevailing wage requirement to any project that receives public funding also failed to pass amid efforts by Cuomo to exempt New York City, which prompted howls from upstate legislators.
But the most confusing and frustrating outcome of Thursday might have been that of automatic voter registration. The bill, which would automatically register voters who interact with state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles, appeared headed for a swift approval on Thursday. But Assembly Republicans pointed out some inconsistencies with the plan. By the evening, it became clear that the problem required more than a quick amendment fix.
A technical issue that couldn’t be corrected in the bill to mandate automatic voter registration means that the bill has been pulled and will be enacted next year.
— Jimmy Vielkind (@JimmyVielkind) June 21, 2019
Here are rundowns of some other highly anticipated watched bills that did not pass:
Legalization of marijuana
The failure to legalize marijuana will likely be the main regret by progressives and criminal justice reform advocates. Despite being singled out by Governor Cuomo as a legislative priority and a flurry of last-minute negotiations, New York lawmakers were unable to reach a deal. Supporters of the bill argued that marijuana legalization would have opened up the state to a billion-dollar industry and put an end to drug policing policies that disproportionately punished minorities. But in the end, the bill was unable to overcome resistance from a number of moderate Democratic senators and internal disagreement over how revenues from the industry should be spent.
Solitary confinement and police transparency
While the state made strides with criminal justice reform through the ending of cash bail and decriminalization of marijuana, several other major provisions failed to gain sufficient traction. Notably, activists were unable to limit the use of solitary confinement to 15 consecutive 23 hour days (the UN has determined that 15 days is the maximum acceptable rate of use of solitary confinement). But although the bill had majority support from the Senate and Assembly, a wary Cuomo said the measure was too costly to implement because it required building new jails, and his office indicated that he would veto it if it came to his desk.
Rather than call the governor’s bluff and force him to veto the bill, Speaker Heastie and Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins did not bring it to the floor for a vote. Activists, who had been on a hunger strike for more than a week to force a vote, called the move “a shameful backroom deal” and an “appalling act of cowardice.”
Instead, the legislature agreed to limit solitary confinement to 30 consecutive days.
Another criminal justice reform that did not pass was a bill that would have revoked a civil rights statute known as 50-a, which keeps police misconduct and disciplinary records hidden from the public. In New York City, the statute came under the spotlight during the administrative trial of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is accused of using a chokehold that resulted in the 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Because of 50-a, neither the judge in the case nor police commissioner James O'Neill is compelled to disclose the ruling or punishment.
The charge to legalize paid surrogacy wound up pitting progressives against one another — gay and infertile couples argued the measure was a life-changing technology that allowed them to have children, while opposing feminists, led by Gloria Steinem, said such a law would lead to the further commodification of women, particularly those who are poorer. Despite strong support from Governor Cuomo and approval by the Senate, the reservations among some lawmakers, including those of Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, who is openly gay, won out. The Assembly elected not to take up the bill. “Some want more time, some are just uncomfortable. People want to take a longer look at it,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said.
Reporting contributed by Fred Mogul, Christopher Robbins, Yasmeen Khan, and Jake Offenhartz.