Mayor de Blasio with Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Democrats in control of the state Legislature for the first time in a decade ended a whirlwind legislative session last week, having notched a raft of progressive victories that were denied to them when Republicans controlled the state Senate.
At a news conference in Albany on Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared it the “the most productive legislative session in modern history,” and in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed.
“As we tally up the scorecard for the end of session, one thing is clear: New Yorkers have won big on a host of progressive legislation that will help make our state fairer,” de Blasio said in a statement on Friday.
Among the bills passed this year were several sweeping packages with significant ramifications for the city’s 8.5 million residents. Registering to vote will become easier. Tenants will have stronger protections. Wealth will no longer determine, in most cases, if someone accused of a crime loses their freedom. Marijuana possession won’t land people in jail. The subways will get new funding and the streets will be a little less crowded by vehicles. Cameras will catch speeding drivers near schools. Construction projects will be completed more efficiently. Undocumented immigrants will be able to apply for driver’s licenses and receive education funding. And that’s not all.
Among de Blasio’s top stated priorities, he saw movement on stronger rent regulations, mayoral control of city schools, congestion pricing, election reform, design-build authority, criminal justice reform, and more.
Nonetheless, there were a few professed priorities for the mayor that did not get approved this year including legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana, scrapping the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), and reforming Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, which shields police officer disciplinary records from public disclosure, among others.
“We haven’t seen a session this daring, productive and progressive in decades, and while we have much more work to do for New Yorkers, I want to thank Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the rest of the legislature for passing these sweeping reforms,” de Blasio said. “I also would like to thank Governor Andrew Cuomo for taking swift action on many of these pieces of legislation.”
The city has already or will soon begin the process of executing some of the various reforms that passed, including creating new local regulations for e-bikes and e-scooters to expanding contract awards for MWBEs, and implementing bail reform. Some reforms will also take effect immediately while other programs are scheduled to ramp up over time.
Here’s a rundown of approved bills and programs, some broad and others more specific, that will impact New York City:
Expanded MWBE Program
The Legislature gave the city greater authority to award discretionary contracts to Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) as well as Emerging Business Enterprises run by socially and economically disadvantaged business owners.
The legislation increases the value of contracts that the city can award without a formal competitive process to such businesses from $150,000 to $500,000 million. It also allows adding MWBE or EBE status as a criteria for creating pre-qualified vendor lists, allows the Department of Design and Construction to create a mentoring program for MWBEs and EBEs, and allows those businesses to apply for School Construction Authority contracts.
De Blasio had called this a top priority, holding a press conference on the subject in late March (he wanted the threshold raised to $1 million, but was pleased with $500,000) and reiterating its importance as the session moved toward completion. A $1 million threshold would have allowed the city to increase annual MWBE awards by $500 million, he had said.
“Our city is fairer and more vibrant when everyone – regardless of race, gender or ethnicity – has an opportunity to participate in our economy,” de Blasio said in a statement. “With the help of State lawmakers and persistent advocacy from our minority and women entrepreneurs, we managed to once again expand economic opportunity for people who have historically been left out of our economy. A $500,000 discretionary award limit for minority and women entrepreneurs will strengthen our thriving economy and entrepreneurial backbone.”
Expanded Design-Build Authority
Design-build is a procurement method intended to cut infrastructure costs by allowing government to solicit a joint design and construction contract. De Blasio has been pushing for the commonsense measure for years but it was repeatedly used as a leverage item by the governor and Republican Senate, with at times small gains allowed to the city.
Democrats this year expanded the city’s design-build authorization to several city agencies: the Department of Design & Construction, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Protection, the School Construction Authority, the Department of Parks & Recreation, the New York City Housing Authority and New York City Health + Hospitals.
Legalizing Electronic Bikes and Scooters
The Legislature legalized e-bikes and e-scooters (with a maximum speed of 20 miles an hour), mandated safety requirements for e-scooters, and gave municipalities the ability to regulate e-scooters within their jurisdiction.
In New York City, the bill could end a de Blasio-ordered crackdown by the NYPD on e-bikes, which are often used by immigrant food delivery workers. It will also allow the City Council to create new regulations where earlier its hands were tied. Several bills were introduced and discussed at a Council hearing in January, which can now move forward. When pressed on his e-bike crackdown, de Blasio repeatedly pointed to Albany, saying he wanted state regulations so the city could then act, but also expressing safety concerns not backed up by any data.
Governor Cuomo did say Friday that he is still reviewing the legislation, and he expressed safety concerns about where and how e-bikes and e-scooters riders would operate, saying he didn’t think they should be in bike lanes or on sidewalks with those riding traditional bikes or walking. De Blasio has expressed similar concerns.
The Legislature passed and governor signed a package of sweeping tenant-friendly rent regulations, with no expiration dates unlike previous rent laws, which are expected to affect more than 2.4 million rent-regulated tenants in the city.
The bills ended high-rent and high-income vacancy decontrol, limited rent increases from “major capital improvements,” and banned blacklisting of tenants for being sued in housing court, among other regulations.
De Blasio called the rent regulations “extraordinary” in an interview on NY1’s Inside City Hall. “[W]e created the biggest affordable housing program this city has ever had, we gave free lawyers to stop evictions, we’ve done a lot of things here that are working – rent freezes for two years, obviously. But the missing link was to get action in Albany,” he said. “Now we have the strongest rent laws we’ve ever had and that’s extraordinary. And I think this has been – this is one of the watershed moments in terms of protecting New York City as we love it, you know, keeping New York New York, making sure it’s a city for everyone.”
In a last-minute agreement, the governor and Legislature approved the expansive Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, said to be the strongest environmental regulation of its kind in the country. It mandates goals for cutting carbon emissions to zero in the electricity sector by 2040, invests heavily in wind and solar energy, and will direct state agencies to invest 40% of clean energy funds in disadvantaged communities.
The bill also empanels a Climate Action Council charged with creating a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050.
De Blasio has already set New York City on a path to reduce emissions by making large buildings more energy efficient and other measures, including related to how the city gets its energy and uses automobiles. The mayor announced in April that all city operations would be powered by renewable energy sources within five years. The CLCPA, with its aggressive goals, will add fuel to those efforts and beyond.
The Legislature also passed a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at retail and grocery stores (a few years after the state overruled a new city law to a similar effect). The bill does include several exemptions, however, and also allows municipalities a choice to impose a 5-cent fee on single-use paper bags.
Voting and Elections Reform
The Legislature passed several laws this year to remove hurdles to voting and registering to vote, most of them early in the year. In New York City, where the New York City Board of Elections has shown repeated failures in administering elections, some of those reforms promise to make voting processes far more efficient.
Among the measures the Legislature passed were early voting, electronic pollbook authorization, three hours of paid leave on Election Day, consolidating the federal and state primary, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, changing the party enrollment deadline to allow more time for voters to pick a party, and universal portability of voter registrations.
The Legislature also approved measures to amend the state constitution to allow same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots by mail. Those measures will have to pass through another Legislative session and a ballot referendum.
De Blasio has already been wrangling with the city Board of Elections, which the city does not control but funds, about some of the changes, including how many early voting sites will be operated for the November election.
Extended Mayoral Control
The state budget deal passed in April gave de Blasio a three-year extension on mayoral control of city schools, compared to the one- and two-year extensions he’d received in the past. The extension gets him through the rest of his term.
The deal also required no concessions from the mayor, unlike when Republicans used mayoral control to pass measures friendly to charter schools or require more oversight. In fact, the charter school cap, which has been hit in New York City, was not lifted at all this year, pleasing the mayor.
The budget did add two members to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, and changed how members of local parent councils are appointed.
The city will also have to do additional new reporting on where state education aid is going, which could lead to conflict next year if Cuomo believes the city is not moving enough state dollars to the most needy schools.
Criminal Justice Reform
De Blasio’s plan to close the Rikers Island jails hinges on reducing the population of the jail complex to below 5,000 (the city's entire correction facility population was slightly under 7,500 as of this week, according to the de Blasio administration). The mayor has repeatedly insisted that that would require broad criminal justice reforms at the state level, and the Legislature obliged with a broad package.
The Legislature ended the use of cash bail for most offenses, save for violent crimes; they overhauled the discovery process, allowing defendants access to evidence against them earlier and more easily; and they guaranteed a defendant's right to a speedy trial.
De Blasio had wanted a change in the recently-passed bail laws, asking the Legislature to give judges the ability to assess a suspect’s “dangerousness” in order to set bail in cases of violent crimes, but the measure proved controversial and failed.
At a June 3 news conference in Albany, he explained, “Remember, there are some people who are profoundly dangerous who have a proven, unfortunately, a proven record of being dangerous to their communities, but are not a flight risk. In those cases, judges’ hands are tied and they do not have a ready way to hold them in, in the way they need to. We need to come up with a very precise definition of dangerousness so that it is not overused. But I think that's something that can and should be done while this legislature is still in session.”
The Legislature also decriminalized possession of low quantities of marijuana, but failed to legalize the recreational adult use of marijuana which would have also allowed commercial sales.
De Blasio has insisted that he would only support legalization done responsibly and with investments for communities long adversely affected by enforcement. “I want to see legalization of marijuana for sure, but I want to see it done in a way that does not create a new monster corporate class that takes advantage of people, that profits in a very inappropriate way,” he said at the June 3 Albany news conference. Cuomo has promised to pursue marijuana legalization again next year.
Transit, Traffic and Congestion Pricing
After opposing it for years, de Blasio embraced a congestion pricing program to impose a charge on drivers entering Manhattan’s central business district, 60th street and below. The Legislature this year approved something of a broad plan -- though it will not take effect till 2021 and must be designed by a committee where de Blasio has little control -- which will create an annual stream of $1 billion in revenue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and allow it to leverage to raise about $15 billion in bond funding to repair and maintain the city’s struggling subways.
The governor and Legislature also mandated reforms at the MTA, including an overhaul of its management structure. But Governor Cuomo seemed to make a last-minute power grab at the state authority, where he already appoints a plurality of board members and its top leadership.
Cuomo nominated his budget director, Robert Mujica, to the board and was successful in pushing the Legislature to waive the requirement that Mujica be a resident of the city. In fact, he had state law changed so that the state budget director is always a member of the MTA Board.
One new de Blasio nominee to the board, former city labor commissioner Bob Linn, was approved by the Senate.
At the same time, the governor failed to advance the mayor’s other nomination for MTA Board member, Dan Zarrilli, to the Senate for confirmation, which leaves de Blasio and the city with one fewer representative.
“It is disappointing the City will have less say on the board during this critical time of change for the MTA, especially that of Mr. Zarrilli, a Staten Islander and professional engineer who is ideally suited to the role,” said Seth Stein, a de Blasio spokesperson, in a statement. “We will continue advocating for the residents of New York City.”
The governor’s office has not fully explained why Zarrilli’s nomination was held up. A spokesperson for Cuomo, Patrick Muncie, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “Mr. Zarrilli’s recommendation was received after Mr. Linn’s, and he is currently going through the background process.” Muncie did not respond to a question about whether Cuomo prefers to have the city at less than full strength on the Board.
Aid for the Undocumented
The Legislature approved the Jose Peralta New York State DREAM Act, named for the state Senator who sponsored the bill but died last year before seeing it passed. The bill gives undocumented immigrant students access to state tuition assistance to attend college and also creates a privately-funded scholarship fund. It’s likely to be significantly impactful in New York City, which is home to about 150,000 DREAMers, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
The Legislature also approved the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act that would reinstate undocumented immigrants’ eligibility to apply for drivers licenses, which was banned following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Cameras Near Schools and on Buses
Democrats reauthorized and dramatically expanded a speed camera program around New York City schools this year, after Republicans had let it lapse last year. Cameras are expected to be installed in 750 school zones, up from 160, and will operate for longer hours.
And the state moved to allow for cameras mounted on city buses in order to ticket vehicles parked in bus lanes, which will aid de Blasio's effort to speed up the city's slow bus fleet.
Working with city officials, the Legislature crafted and approved a bill that would allow military veterans to subtract seven years from their age (up from six) to qualify for the city’s Fire Department. “If you’re a veteran who has served this country proudly, your age shouldn’t be a barrier to continue serving our fellow New Yorkers,” de Blasio said, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
LGBTQ and Gender Equity
The Democrat-led Legislature moved forward on a number of bills that Republicans had repeatedly blocked in past years. They banned conversion therapy for minors, passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), prohibiting discrimination based on gender and sexual identity.
The Legislature also passed the Reproductive Health Act, which codified federal abortion protections established by Roe v. Wade into state law, and passed the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, mandating that insurers cover the cost of contraception. They also banned employers from discriminating against employees based on reproductive health decisions.
Child Victims Act
The Legislature approved the Child Victims Act, which raises the statute of limitations for adult survivors of child sexual abuse to file civil and criminal complaints.
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette