It’s a new year in Albany, and change is afoot.
Democrats and Republicans in the New York State legislature have long shared an uneasy balance of power. The Assembly is dominated by Democrats; the state Senate, in which power is skewed toward rural areas, has been under Republican control for most of the past half-century.
Last November, Democrats in the state Senate captured eight seats previously held by Republicans, setting the stage for a dramatic shift in legislative priorities. With the Senate and Assembly no longer deadlocked, action is now happening fast. In just a few short weeks, the new legislature has passed a slew of bills that have been languishing for years in Republican-dominated committees in the Senate.
A few of the landmark bills that have already been passed by the new legislature:
· Reproductive rights
This week, the Senate passed the Reproductive Health Act, which removes abortion from the criminal code, and will ensure abortion access in New York State if Roe v. Wade is overturned at the federal level. In a recent New Yorker article, reporter Jia Tolentino documented the case of Erika Christensen, late-term abortion patient turned activist, and why she thinks the state legislation doesn’t go far enough.
Also signed: The Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which will mandate insurance coverage of contraception, and the so-called “boss bill,” which forbids employers to discriminate based on contraception and reproductive health decisions.
· LGBT protections
The Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) was first introduced in 2003, but every year since then, it has failed in committee in the Senate. Earlier this month, it was finally brought to the floor for a vote, and easily passed both houses, 100-40 in the Assembly and 42-19 in the Senate.
The bill, aimed at protecting transgendered people from discrimination, makes “gender identity” a protected class, making it unlawful to discriminate based on gender identity in housing, employment or public accommodation.
Also passed handily by the new legislature was a bill banning sexual orientation conversion therapy for minors. Although the bill has been blocked by Republican committee members in the Senate for years, when it came to the floor it was supported almost unanimously, 57-4.
· Voting reform
The most sweeping of the new legislature’s actions so far in 2019 is an election reform package, aimed at expanding voting access in a state notorious for its tough voter laws. Among the changes coming to New York voting law: same-day registration, early voting, mail-in ballots, and state and federal primaries held on the same day.
In an article on the new reforms, The Hill gives a little context on New York’s restrictive voting laws, which have put the state almost last in the nation for voter turnout:
New York’s antiquated voting laws are a relic of the earliest settlers in the region, Dutch colonists who founded New Amsterdam in the 17th Century.
Those settlers founded the colony as an extension of the Dutch West India Company, which was more interested in commerce than a representative government like those in Puritan colonies in Massachusetts.
In later years, party machines run by Tammany Hall benefitted from voting restrictions that limited turnout to only a handful of faithful voters.
· Coming soon: Expanded statute of limitations on child abuse
The legislature is likely to pass the Child Victims Act, which will allow adult victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to press criminal charges against their abusers. Long opposed to the legislation, the Catholic Church has recently come out in support of the bill, provided it treats public and private institutions equally for the purposes of civil lawsuits.
So far, the high-profile measures approved by the new legislature have been in the works for years or even decades, and shared broad consensus among Democrats (and even some Republicans). Not all of the new legislature’s goals will be achieved so easily. The thorniest issues facing the state Senate and Assembly involve money, and what ought to be done with it.
· Recreational marijuana
In a dramatic reversal from his earlier position, Gov. Cuomo has thrown his support behind the legalization of recreational cannabis, and in theory, the legislature is behind him. But the devil’s in the details: legislation needs to address how it will be regulated and taxed, how past criminal marijuana convictions should be handled, and what the revenue raised will go to.
· Rent regulation
In the more urban parts of the state, a fight is brewing over rent regulation. Greater New York City’s rent laws are up for renewal in June, and an effort is underway to expand a suite of tenant protections to other urban centers like Rochester and Buffalo, or possibly even the entire state. The Commercial Observerreports on the new push to reform rent laws, and the legislators behind it:
The energized freshman Senate crew, which includes Zellnor Myrie, Alessandra Biaggi, and Julia Salazar, is determined to strengthen New York’s 70-year-old rent laws. On Jan. 9, the Democrats took control of the Senate for the first time since 2009, when they only held on to a slim majority for a year. Before that, the Democrats spent 43 years in the minority.
“The real estate industry has been living large because of gaping loopholes they’ve opened up in the rent-regulation system,” said Michael Gianaris, a state Senator from western Queens who chairs the chamber’s Democratic conference. “And now there’s a majority in the Senate that wants to change that for the first time in 20 or 30 years.”
· The MTA
New York City’s public transit woes have reached a fever pitch in the past year. Gov. Cuomo has called for the entity that oversees the MTA to be reorganized, blaming the MTA’s dysfunction on the structure of its board. But the topic is a controversial one, with plenty of finger-pointing to go around. Another legislative priority: congestion pricing, which is likely to give rise to all sorts of regional grievances.
· Tax cap
The state’s property tax cap has enjoyed bipartisan support since it was enacted in 2011. An effort to make the tax cap permanent has broad Republican support and the endorsement of key Senate Democrats; passing the cap permanently is a priority for Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. But the cap’s fate is less certain in the Assembly, where opposition from teacher’s unions has made members wary of supporting a permanent cap, Newsday reports.
This year is likely to see the passage of legislation that will influence life in New York State for years to come. These issues deserve thoughtful, in-depth coverage—the kind of reporting we’re building our capacity to do here at The River.