Gov. Cuomo holds a press conference (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)
A particularly dysfunctional, even for New York, state legislative session came to a halt on Wednesday with little movement on most of the major issues animating state government. The reunification of the Independent Democratic Conference and the mainline Senate Democrats led to business slowing to a drip in the Senate after the passage of the state budget; things became particularly impaired after one Republican senator, Tom Croci, was recalled to active military duty, leaving the chamber with no working majority and a paralysis of legislative business on anything controversial, and at times even on the mundane.
Even as the Democrat-dominated Assembly passed a wide variety of legislation, there appeared to be little appetite for the annual package of compromise legislation, in part, it seems, due to election year considerations. Every seat in both houses of the Legislature is on the ballot this fall, as well as the four statewide positions of governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, and attorney general.
Perhaps the most significant item to break through the Albany morass was the approval of the Airtrain LaGuardia project, and the simultaneous approval of the use of eminent domain to build it. Otherwise, there was no movement on major issues such as ethics reform, criminal justice reform, teacher evaluations, and the renewal of speed cameras near New York City schools, among other more contentious issues where no agreements were reached among Assembly and Senate leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Even as lawmakers left Albany for the end of the scheduled session, presumably done with legislative business for the rest of the calendar year, there was some talk of a special session in the coming weeks or months in order to address a small number of issues, like the speed cameras.
But as of now, the session is over and there are no concrete plans for legislators to be called back to the Capitol. A look at some of the highlights of what did and (mostly) did not move as the legislative session ended.
What awaits the governor’s pen
The Assembly and Senate passed a bill that would authorize the Airtrain LaGuardia project to bring a rail link to LaGuardia Airport, and would also authorize the state to acquire property in Queens via eminent domain for use in that project. The bill further stated the expected route that the rail link would take. The bill passed the Assembly on Monday 134-1, with new Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein the sole dissenter; it passed the Senate 52-8 on Wednesday, with seven city Democrats and one upstate Republican, Joseph Robach, voting against.
Fixing up LaGuardia, the only major airport in the region without a direct rail link, has become something of a calling for Cuomo, a Queens native, throughout his tenure, so he is almost certain to sign the bill into law. Cuomo has championed the Airtrain LaGuardia project, saying that his program is “transforming LaGuardia into a world-class transportation gateway.” Cuomo has also helmed the construction of a new terminal at LaGuardia for Delta Airlines.
But community groups in the Queens neighborhoods surrounding the airport have been steadfast in their opposition to the project, which they believe will negatively impact their quality of life with little upside for community members. Transit advocates, meanwhile, contend that the funds used on the construction of the Airtrain can be put to better use. On Thursday, opponents protested the Airtrain’s approval at the governor’s office. Meanwhile, Queens civic organizations have floated a petition demanding an environmental impact statement for the project.
Prosecutorial Accountability Office
The Senate passed a bill last week to establish a “State Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct,” an eleven-member body consisting of appointees of the governor, Legislature, and chief judge. The commission would investigate prosecutorial misconduct and, if warranted, discipline prosecutors found guilty of wrongdoing. The Assembly passed the bill on Tuesday. It’s not immediately clear if Cuomo will sign it.
The Assembly noted that the past few years have seen several “high profile exonerations of people who were wrongfully convicted of serious crimes in New York State.” Such wrongful convictions are not always the result of an accident: prosecutors have been known to withhold or even tamper with evidence that could potentially exonerate a defendant. As such, district attorneys have historically opposed legislation forcing them to turn over all evidence in the discovery phase of the legal process.
Prosecutors have also come under suspicion in recent years due to their close working relations with police, and the potentially related and frequent lack of charges for officers accused of wrongdoing. In 2015, Governor Cuomo empowered the New York Attorney General to act as a special prosecutor in cases when officers are involved in the death of unarmed civilians.
The Assembly noted that the measure has been endorsed by Human Rights Watch. It was championed in the Senate by retiring Senator John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican.
Feminine hygiene products for inmates
The Senate, on June 12, passed a bill to provide free menstrual products, such as tampons or pads, to inmates at state and local correctional facilities. The bill passed 59-2, with Republicans Pamela Helming and Robert Ortt dissenting. The bill passed the Assembly later that same day 142-1, with Republican Christopher Friend dissenting, and awaits the likely signature of the governor, who signaled his support in January. The Assembly had earlier passed the bill in June of last year and January of this year, but it failed in the Senate.
In 2016, New York City required that women be provided free menstrual products in all city correctional facilities, as well as schools and homeless shelters. The federal government did the same for its prisons last summer. But as of 2017, according to the Roosevelt Institute, women in New York State prisons were provided only 10 free pads per month, “which is far below the recommended amount of 20 per monthly cycle.”
Otherwise, inmates must purchase tampons or pads from the prison commissary; according to Senator Roxanne Persaud, at the Taconic State Correctional Facility, “one tampon costs 24 cents. The average female inmate makes approximately 17 cents per hour. Thus, female inmates must spend their week's earnings to purchase a 20-count box of tampons, which still may be insufficient for many women whose periods last up to seven days.”
There are also dozens of other, non-controversial bills that both houses passed that will head to Cuomo’s desk.
What failed to pass the Legislature (a partial list)
The Legislature failed to renew and expand the city’s program to use speed cameras around schools, eliciting anger from Mayor Bill de Blasio and other local elected officials and advocates, as well as the governor. De Blasio, who said the inaction was a “massive failure of leadership” by Senate Republicans, called on the Legislature to return for a special session to renew the program.
“The State Assembly majority has shown the way with their expansion bill,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Senate Republicans haven't done their job until they pass the bill, which has majority support. Our families now need the Governor to do all he can to aid its passage and sign it into law. The Senate must return next week to keep our children safe.”
Governor Cuomo also criticized the Senate, saying on a press conference call Thursday that he “pushed the Legislature very hard” on the speed camera issue. Like the mayor, the governor said that the Legislature should convene a special session, before the beginning of the school year in September, to renew the camera program.
The renewal and expansion of the program, meant to increase road safety around schools and discourage reckless driving, was passed by the Assembly and had the support of a majority of senators, but was nevertheless held up by the Senate’s Republican leadership. Senator Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans said he would agree to support the measure as long as it was tied to increasing the presence of police at all city schools; the Democrats were not in favor. A Senate GOP spokesperson said that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Mayor de Blasio did little to come to a compromise on the speed camera issue.
A somewhat related bill proposed by Senator Marty Golden of Brooklyn, which would place new signage in school zones to prevent reckless driving but would not renew the camera program, resulted in a rare failed floor vote in the Senate. The measure lost 30-28 on party lines (a bill needs 32 votes to pass), with Republicans plus Felder voting in favor and Democrats voting against, signaling their refusal to settle for anything short of the cameras.
Amid the hullabaloo over Mayor de Blasio’s new push to reform the specialized high school admission process, including controversially eliminating the entrance exam, the Assembly and Senate declared that a vote on abolishing the test would not take place this year. Governor Cuomo dismissed de Blasio’s proposal, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that he would not schedule a vote before engaging in discussions on the proposal with relevant parties.
Meanwhile, the Assembly in May passed a bill that would decouple student scores on state standardized tests with teacher evaluations, a controversial issue over the course of several years that appeared on its way to some finality. The Senate passed the measure as well, but tied it to an increase in the cap on charter schools, to 560 charters to be allowed in the state. Heastie referred to that aspect of the Senate bill as “cyanide” for the anti-charter Assembly Democrats, and the teacher evaluation reform did not move through Albany by the end of the session.
Child Victims Act
Once again, the Child Victims Act failed to pass through the Legislature before the end of the session. The legislation, which would extend the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse and create a “lookback window” of one year for victims of abuse to sue their abusers, has the support of Governor Cuomo and has repeatedly passed the Assembly, but has stalled in the Senate, where Republicans have again proposed their own version of a bill on the topic that Democrats call overly watered down.
Ethics reform and good government
Government ethics reform achieved no ground again in Albany this year. Governor Cuomo and the Assembly, during the budget process, proposed closing the LLC loophole in campaign finance and creating a statewide public campaign financing system similar to that of New York City; the Senate rejected these measures and they did not appear in the budget. As in previous years, the Assembly and governor did not prioritize the measures in post-budget legislative activity.
The Senate, in May, passed a good government reform package that, among other things, would create a searchable database of state economic development contracts, return certain procurement oversight powers to the state comptroller, and ban executive appointees from donating to the executive’s political campaigns. These measures, which were not supported by Cuomo, were not taken up by the Assembly, though the majority there has supported the “database of deals” and restoration of comptroller powers in the past.
Criminal justice reform
The Assembly passed several criminal justice reforms this session, including some that were in its budget proposal but failed to make it into the enacted legislation. Many had been supported by Governor Cuomo. These include an elimination of cash bail in most instances, and reform of the state’s poorly-regarded discovery laws. The Assembly also passed bills to seal low-level marijuana conviction records and to reduce the use of solitary confinement in state jails and prisons. None of these bills were passed by the Senate.
The Assembly passed the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer healthcare system in New York State. The Senate did not take up the bill, and the governor has been ambiguous on whether or not he supports it.
The Reproductive Health Act, which would codify the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision into New York state law, passed the Assembly in March but, once again, did not make it through the state Senate. The RHA was involved in last month’s chaos in the Senate: Democrats introduced the RHA and the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which would codify the requirement of insurance companies to provide free contraception as part of their plans, as amendments to an uncontroversial Republican bill regarding concussions.
When Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul intended to break a tie to pass the amendments, the Senate majority instead tabled all legislative matters that day.
Guns and school safety
In the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Governor Cuomo launched a renewed push for additional gun control. His marquee item, a “red flag” bill that would allow school staff to petition judges to remove guns from certain students’ homes, passed the assembly last week. The Senate, however, pushed Felder’s school safety measures that would place armed guards or police officers at every school in the state. The measures pushed by Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans were both unpalatable to the other, leading to inaction on the gun control front.
There was no agreement on legalizing sports gambling in New York, a potential new practice and revenue source for the state after a recent Supreme Court ruling allowed states to adopt it. While the Senate appeared ready to make a deal, the Assembly balked.
The Senate on Wednesday voted to declare baseball as the official sport of New York State, and to rename the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge (formerly the Tappan Zee Bridge) as the Mario M. Cuomo Tappan Zee Bridge. Neither were taken up by the Assembly.