ALBANY — The 2015 crash of a limousine on Suffolk's North Fork that killed four young people and injured four more, and the limo crash upstate that killed 20 people last October are expected to prompt significant new regulation of the popular vehicles, state officials said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has several measures to deal with the limousine safety issue in his proposal for the fiscal 2019-20 state budget due to be passed by April 1.
Majority Democrats in the State Senate and Assembly are negotiating with Cuomo, but also plan hearings during the remainder of the legislative session, scheduled to end June 19, on limo safety laws.
“It’s not about sympathy anymore; it’s about responsibility,” said Nancy DiMonte, 62, of East Northport. Her daughter, Joelle, 29, was seriously injured in the July 2015 crash in Cutchogue during a winery tour when the modified Lincoln Town Car that Joelle and her friends were riding in made a U-turn and was struck broadside by a pickup truck.
Cuomo’s budget would increase criminal and civil penalties for putting unsafe limousines on the road. The package also would boost penalties for limos longer than 18 feet that make U-turns.
Other Cuomo proposals stemming from findings in the crashes in Cutchogue and upstate Schoharie would mandate tougher penalties for operating limos with “out-of-service” orders and removing “out-of-service order” stickers; require seat belts to be used in rear seats; create a $120 fee for mandatory inspections; require drivers to have a commercial driver’s license with an endorsement to drive passengers, which requires more training and testing; and give state officials authority to sideline limos as an emergency measure.
In January, Cuomo called for a ban on stretch limos, but his budget amendments 30 days later didn't include the prohibition.
The Assembly and Senate removed most of the policy initiatives in Cuomo’s package in their own budget proposals. However, the Senate and Assembly did approve Cuomo's $120 inspection fee.
The Senate in its counterproposal to Cuomo's budget also proposed giving the state more power to enforce safety requirements for limos, and requiring seat belts to be used in the back seats of limos.
The Senate rejected Cuomo’s other limousine proposals pending hearings "to incorporate stakeholders’ input to ensure that passenger motor carrier safety is properly regulated while enabling the industry to function.”
The limo safety issue is part of a quiet but potentially historic showdown in Albany.
State law provides governors with leverage over the Legislature in crafting a budget.
If there is no agreement by the April 1 deadline, the governor can include his or her policy proposals in emergency budget "extenders." The legislature can accept or reject them; if lawmakers choose the latter option, they run the political risk of being blamed for shutting down government.
But Senate and Assembly leaders this year have pushed back at Cuomo’s increasing use of the budget process to pass his policy measures, many of which have nothing to do with state finances.
Cuomo is pushing hard to pass the limousine measures in closed-door budget negotiations with legislative leaders.
“We have to make changes,” Cuomo said Friday. “At least we need to be able to say we learned from," the crashes, "and we are making reforms and we are doing it now. We’re doing it now. And I believe that will be in the budget.”
But many lawmakers say such policy issues are best handled legislatively, with hearings and other public debate before the end of the legislative session.
“This is an important issue and we are actively engaged in discussions with our members and our partners in government regarding limousine safety,” said Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
“Generally speaking, I think a lot of the major policy issues shouldn’t be in the budget, but I think this is something that should be common sense,” said Sen. James Gaughran (D-Huntington), who supports Cuomo's plan and is working with the Long Island families of the Cutchogue victims.
DiMonte, a spokeswoman for the Long Island families who has worked closely with Cuomo on limo legislation, said, “our concern is that if it does go to the legislature, it will be watered down, omitted and possibly postponed.”
DiMonte said passage in the budget by April 1 is crucial to enacting the measures before this year's prom, wedding and winery tour seasons.
However, most laws passed by the legislature regulations must be drawn up, and public comment periods are required. That can take 30 days to several months.
Still, DiMonte said early passage is critical because of the message it will send to limousine operators and customers.
“Passage will lead to attitude change,” she said.