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Marijuana, deficit top the docket as NY lawmakers return to Albany

The Capitol in Albany seen from the steps

The Capitol in Albany seen from the steps of the state Education Department Building on Oct. 7 last year. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Democrats who control the State Capitol tore through 2019 at a startling pace, completing item after item on a long list of progressive goals and leaving them a question: What’s left for 2020?

Besides missing out on the legalization of marijuana, Democrats checked off nearly every other high-profile bill on their agenda last year. That included new legislation on abortion, bail, climate change, guns, immigration, sexual harassment and rent control.

Now, they enter 2020 with a lower-profile wish list and a budget deficit. Republicans, dramatically outnumbered in the State Senate and Assembly following the 2018 elections, will try to team with some advocates to pressure their opponents to roll back or soften some of the laws enacted in 2019.

Here’s a look at some of the issues lawmakers, analysts and advocates say will top the 2020 agenda:

State budget/deficit

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says New York faces a $6.1 billion budget gap, though that is based on spending growth projections and promises made in the 2019-20 spending plan. The actual number could wind up lower.

Still, even a smaller deficit could tamp down support for expanding current or launching new programs.

“The engine that pulls the train will be the budget,” Blair Horner, a longtime lobbyist for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said. “It’s typically hard to get the legislature to do spending cuts in an election year and how you deal with that and the deficit will determine a lot of what happens this year.”

Horner noted that of the 18 or so proposals Cuomo has rolled out already for 2020 “none of them have to do with funding.” They are more about banning Styrofoam cups and types of fentanyl — nothing that requires state money or gives any indication of tackling the deficit.

The governor is supposed to present a budget proposal to the State Legislature by Jan. 21. 

Promises to continue increasing aid to schools at an annual clip of about 4 percent will be on the line.

Business groups will be “playing a lot of defense” on the budget, said Kevin Law, CEO of the Long Island Association. He said they would oppose “any new taxes on business,” any expansion of prevailing wage requirements on construction projects and a proposal to establish a “single payer” government-run health care system in New York.

Raising revenue

A budget gap means lawmakers will have to either reduce spending, raise taxes or authorize new taxes and fees, such as approving and taxing recreational marijuana.

If they choose to raise revenue, the broadest and easiest way to do it would be to raise taxes. But Senate Democrats — concerned about protecting members on Long Island and the Hudson Valley — say that’s not the first option.

“Whatever happens, everybody is going to have to decide how to deal with the shortfall,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said. “We are obviously concerned. It is critical — our first fallback isn’t 'Let’s raise taxes.' ”

In contrast, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said his house isn’t likely to favor spending cuts.

“When there’s a concern about having enough money, the two options always are do you cut spending or do you raise revenue? For us in the Assembly, we always believe in raising revenue,” Heastie said.

Some places they might look to raise money include legalizing recreational marijuana, allowing grocery stores to sell wine, raising taxes on condos and co-op apartments in Manhattan used as second homes, closing what some call corporate tax loopholes and expanding the nickel deposit on the bottle law. Some groups might push for an environmental bond act to pay for cleanups.

And there is certain to be an effort to legalize sports betting through mobile devices. Currently, sports betting is permitted only in person at some upstate and Native American-run casinos.

Marijuana

There is plenty of support on the simple question of legalization. But the breakdown last year came when lawmakers couldn’t settle the detailed questions about regulating who can grow and sell it, setting potency levels, providing for driving/road safety and, most especially, divvying up tax revenue.

Legislators want to ensure that a significant share of the money goes to minority communities they believe have been most impacted by the so-called war on drugs. Cuomo has favored putting most of it in the state’s general fund, commingling it with other revenue, legislators said.

Bail/discovery pushback

Last year, Democrats approved new laws eliminating the requirement for cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes and forcing prosecutors to share evidence with defense attorneys much earlier — within 15 days — in the trial process.

Republicans and some law-enforcement officials are calling on Democrats to give judges more discretion to impose bail on some crimes and lengthen the discovery period.

"Correcting the so-called bail reform … is at the top of the list," Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), said of the GOP's priorities.

Even New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, voiced support, reportedly telling reporters: “There is a chance now for the legislature to get it right. They did some very good reforms, but there are also things that need to be done, particularly empowering judges to determine if someone poses a threat to the surrounding community.”

It’s unclear if a call for a roll back will get any traction. But some Democratic officials say they might support another request: Providing district attorneys and sheriff offices with more money to comply with the new laws.

Vaping

Cuomo last year sought to ban flavored electronic cigarettes through emergency health regulations, but in October a state court blocked it. Now, the governor is looking to do the same through legislation and also ban online and mail order of e-cigarettes.

Guns

Sens. Jim Gaughran (D-Huntington) and Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead) last year proposed a ban on “ghost guns” — weapons shipped in pieces, without serial numbers, to be assembled later by the purchaser. Cuomo now has proposed a similar idea.

Health Care

The liberal wing of Democrats is going to try again to win approval for a single-payer health care plan. That is a Canadian-style, government-run system they say will be cover more people and be more efficient in the long run.

Cuomo and moderates will strongly resist. They say that the startup cost for the state (estimated in the billions of dollars) would be untenable and that any such system would have to be done on a national level.

Environment

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said he will renew an effort to specifically outlaw illegal dumping of toxic materials, an idea that sprung from a Suffolk County grand jury inquiry into illegal dumping on Long Island.

Currently, prosecutors must use other types of charges, such as criminal mischief, to go after suspects. Kaminsky wants prosecutors to be able to charge someone with “illegal disposal,” and also establish an electronic tracking system for hauled debris. 

State & Region