ALBANY – It was a January unlike any in recent memory at the New York State Capitol.
Typically, the first month of any new year is ceremonial and sleepy. A governor delivers a State of the State speech and a budget wish list, legislators say “we’ll have to discuss it” and they all hunker down for six weeks of inconsequential action until things get serious in March.
Not this time.
Democrats promised a fast start after taking full control of the State Legislature for the first time in years. And in just three weeks they’ve tackled big issues including abortion, early voting, gun control, LGBTQ rights, teacher evaluations, offshore drilling and the statute of limitations on child molestation.
It’s partly about freeing up long-stalled proposals and partly a show of independence from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, veteran lawmakers and analysts said.
In either case, nothing compares to it in recent memory.
“The pace is breath-taking,” Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist and longtime observer of New York politics, said in an email. “It’s the most active legislative session opening in my memory – going back to the 1970s. More major legislation than some complete sessions … Democrats are fulfilling their campaign promises with gusto.”
To be sure, there are fault lines ahead with Cuomo over school aid, marijuana, government oversight, single-payer health care, rent control and Amazon's proposal to build a multi-billion dollar headquarters in Long Island City.
But for now, they’re celebrating.
“It feels good,” said Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), a legislator since 2003. “All the stars are lined up … and there’s no reason to wait.”
There’s two main reasons for the flurry of activity, legislators said. First, a number of these high-profile bills had been bottled up for years by a Republican-controlled Senate and Democrats were itching to deliver results for their voters.
Second, passing legislation now means policy issues such as abortion are treated as free-standing and don’t become part of budget discussions in which tradeoffs are made and which tend be dominated by the governor. Democratic legislators have more say over bill language now that they don't have to go through Cuomo to negotiate with the Senate.
“The legislature is reasserting its independence,” said Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor). “The way to do that is remove as many policy issues from the budget as possible.”
He said the mood has been one of elation and exhaustion from the rapid-fire schedule. Others agreed.
“January and February have been generally embarrassing,” Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany), entering his 23rd year in office, said of the typical first two months of a legislative session. “The past month has been by far the most exciting of my 22 years in the Senate. You felt like a team, you had goals and you accomplished those goals.”
Republicans said they had expected some proposals to move immediately, such as one expanding abortion rights under state law to match those accorded under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. But they say some things are being rushed, such as early voting and some gun-control measures.
“Early voting is, I think, a big problem because there’s no funding to go with it,” said Assemb. Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head). He also said a Democrat-backed bill to outlaw “bump stocks” – devices that permit guns to fire faster – should have included language to consider competitive shooters with disabilities who use them.
“Some of this is being done a little too quickly,” Montesano said. “It’s like a race to the finish line. Quite frankly, it seems (Democrat legislators) wanted to deprive the governor of that ability” to control an issue.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and new Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) have said moving quickly isn’t about cutting out Cuomo. They said they share the same agenda with the governor, but there was no need to wait on some long-standing issues, such as approving the “Child Victims Act,” which eases the statute of limitations for pursuing criminal charges and civil lawsuits in decades-old molestation cases. Senate Republicans had kept the bill bottled up for years.
Left out of the daily legislative action, Cuomo has kept pace with high-profile law-signing ceremonies, complete with celebrities. And his office has stressed that he’s supported many of the same bills for years and that he wanted to set an aggressive “first 100 days” pace in this legislative session.
“I believe we are in a fundamentally different space and in the old days too many good ideas went to the state Senate to die,” the governor said during his State of the State address in January. “Now we're going to have good ideas going to the state Senate to be born. And I think we should take advantage of this opportunity.”