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Albany lawmakers set to OK far-reaching climate, farmworkers' bills

Marathon proceedings continued o. what was supposed to

Marathon proceedings continued o. what was supposed to be the final day of the legislative session. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

 ALBANY — State legislators moved Wednesday to pass far-reaching bills to overhaul farm operations throughout New York and compel the state to move to 100 percent renewable energy within the next 21 years.

The farm bill would give workers new rights to unionize, one day off per week and a 60-hour workweek. It would undo a provision in state law that for some 80 years allowed farmworkers to be treated differently  from other workers — a change, some said,  that would cause some farms to go under.

The climate-change bill, called by supporters the most aggressive in the nation, requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050. And it orders the state to use carbon-free power by 2040 — goals that critics said would prove unrealistic and extremely costly to average residents.

The bills were just the latest in what’s now a long series of progressive measures enacted in Albany since Democrats won the Senate last November, giving the party complete control of state government.

Here’s a look at how some of the issues were faring during the marathon proceedings of what was supposed to be the final day of the 2019 legislative session:

Climate change

One opponent, Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), said of the plan: “Aspirational? Yes. Realistic? No.” He noted that New York achieved just an 8 percent reduction in greenhouse gases between 1990 and 2015. Further, he said, the bill should include significant tax credits to employers and homeowners to meet the higher costs of renewable energy.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who sponsored the bill with Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), said the plan will mandate adjustments but will make New York a leader -- “on the ground floor of the green energy movement.” “There’s no doubt it’s going to be a Herculean effort, but we have no choice and I believe we can get there,” Kaminsky said.

Farm labor

The bill passed by the legislature would undo a state law enacted in 1937 that excluded farmworkers from some labor protections,  such as the right to unionize. “They have been out of step with the rest of our workforce and it’s  created a permanent class of low-wage workers,” Assemb. Sean Ryan (D-Buffalo) said.

 Opponents, mostly Republicans, said farms operate on low margins and some won’t withstand the new mandates. “This legislation will decimate New York’s agricultural industry and, thereby, the state’s economy,” said Assemb. Brian Miller (R-New Hartford), a Mohawk Valley apple grower.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he would sign the bill.

Solitary confinement

At issue is a bill that would prohibit a prisoner from serving more than 15 consecutive days in solitary. It is favored by the Democratic-led Assembly. But Cuomo said it could spark the need to build more prison cells, even a “new type of jail,” which he opposed. Several officials said the parties were trying to forge a compromise before adjournment.

 Paid “gestational surrogacy”

 At issue is a bill that would overturn a state law that prohibits a woman being paid to carry someone else’s baby to term. Cuomo and the Senate support the bill, as do many LBGTQ activist groups. The Catholic Church and others oppose it, saying it would prey on vulnerable women. As of Wednesday, the bill appeared all but dead. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he felt it was “sprung on members late” in the session and it wasn’t clear a majority of Democrats who control the Assembly support it.

 “Gay panic” defense

Both houses easily passed a bill to ban criminal defendants from claiming “gay panic” -- extreme emotional distress supposedly triggered by learning a victim’s sexuality -- and asking a jury to excuse violent acts. It’s a claim that’s been largely discredited and increasingly rarely used, but wasn’t expressly outlawed. Some defense attorney associations had said no action should be taken to interfere with a person’s right to mount a legal defense. But, by and large, the bill faced no strong opposition in Albany.

Sexual harassment

Under bills legislators plan to approve, claimants no longer would have to prove “severe and pervasive” behavior to substantiate a sexual harassment charge. A person would have up to three years to file a sexual harassment complaint, instead of one. And the statute of limitations for pursuing second-degree rape charges would be 20 years and third-degree 10, instead of five each. Said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers): “New York’s outdated sexual harassment laws have silenced survivors for too long.”

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