Nassau County police responded on Aug. 26, 2023, to the...

Nassau County police responded on Aug. 26, 2023, to the Macy's store at Roosevelt Field where a man smashed a jewelry case and attempted to grab the merchandise.  Credit: Jim Staubitser

ALBANY — The new New York State budget agreement is set to include new ideas to crack down on three persistent problems that have exploded in recent years: Illegal cannabis shops, retail theft and toll evasion on bridges and highways.

Tougher penalties, expanded enforcement and tax credits are all part of proposals lawmakers are expected to soon approve to combat troublesome issues. They will have to wait to assess the impacts, but, for now, lawmakers are confident they will make a dent.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, at a news conference Thursday afternoon in Manhattan, touted the measures aimed at curbing the rise in retail theft as “taking new steps to end this chaos.”

“No one wants to walk into a store to find items locked up behind glass windows … No one wants to see the shops in their neighborhood boarded up because business owners say, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” the governor said. “Because that threatens the very vitality of these communities.” 

The package of retail initiatives include making assault of a retail worker a felony and providing tax credits for businesses to add security personnel or equipment. Also, legislation will earmark $40 million for dedicated “retail theft teams” within State Police and local enforcement agencies — and add 100 more State Police personnel focused on organized retail theft rings.

Further, an amendment of the criminal statutes will allow local district attorneys to combine the value of products stolen from different stores by the same individuals to seek higher levels of larceny charges.

Another change focuses on third-party sellers — “middlemen” — who previously might have escaped serious charges because they didn’t actually possess the stolen goods.

The state Senate and Assembly were slated to begin voting on budget bills Thursday night and expected to complete the overall $237 billion plan this weekend.

The cannabis measures include delegating local authorities to take action to shutter illegal shops, which have sprouted in the tens of thousands in part because of the extremely slow rollout of licensed shops.

Lawmakers rallied behind the measures because the state — either through the Office of Cannabis Management, the Tax Department or other vehicles — doesn’t have the staff to enforce closures around the state.

Assemb. Jennifer Rajkumar (D-Woodhaven) said the new legislation would allow for the padlocking of illegal shops found selling cannabis to children, selling unregulated cannabis and operating near a school, among other conditions.

The assemblywoman vowed to take action herself to close shops in her district. Her office issued a statement saying: “The next few weeks, Assemblywoman Rajkumar will be raiding illegal smoke shops across New York City with Sheriff Anthony Miranda, padlocking and shutting them down for good."

Operators of legal dispensaries — which number only about 100 in the state — say they are glad the state is taking action but wonder just how much attention local authorities will be able to give the issue.

“I think any legislation or increase in enforcement is a step in the right direction,” Paul Lapore, president of Happy Days dispensary in Farmingdale, told Newsday.

“But we really have to see how well it’s executed,” Lapore said. He said he doesn’t “see a lot happening” because local authorities have been cautious about enforcement and they are dealing with many priorities. 

He said the state should create something like the State Liquor Authority with power and staff to go in and shut down illegal actors.

On tolls, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said the budget agreement will include measures targeting toll evaders. Among the ideas: Suspending vehicle registrations for those who don’t pay their tolls, giving law enforcement authority to seize license plate covers, and increasing fines.

But as of late Thursday, toll evasion was one of several final issues holding up a budget agreement.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently estimated it’s losing nearly $50 million per year on toll evasion because of tinted covers or defaced license plates or other dodges.

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