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Officials: Senate will OK driver's licenses for immigrants in U.S. illegally; pot bill progressing

Marijuana legalization supporters rally on Sunday outside of

Marijuana legalization supporters rally on Sunday outside of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Manhattan office to urge lawmakers to enact the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act before the end of the legislative session. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — A Senate official said Sunday the chamber plans to approve a bill giving driver's licenses to immigrants in the United States illegally. Meanwhile, negotiations to legalize recreational marijuana are progressing, according to a source in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration.

The driver's license legislation has picked up steam and could win final approval from the State Senate on Monday or Tuesday, a source said. The Assembly already has passed the bill and Cuomo supports the concept, although he would have to examine details of the bill before he signs or vetoes it.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. The legislative session is scheduled to end Wednesday, but a marijuana deal could be rushed to the floor late that night. Cuomo would have to order a “message of the necessity” and the legislature would have to accept it to suspend the constitution’s requirement that the public get three days’ public review of all bills.

Despite weekend talks, a legislative source said the marijuana bill remained a "heavy lift" for the Senate.

On Friday, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said the marijuana bill had enough support to pass in chamber. 

"After conversations with my co-sponsor and colleagues in the Senate, I am even more confident of a path for victory," Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) said. "It’s critical that we pass this bill to ensure those communities most affected by the so called ‘war on drugs’ finally see justice and I am confident this legislation does just that."

Sources wouldn’t say what issue in the marijuana bill may have gained support over Saturday night’s long bout of closed-door talks between Cuomo and leaders of the Democratic majorities of the Senate and Assembly.

But one of the biggest sticking points was the effort by several legislators to make sure taxes secured by marijuana sales would benefit poor neighborhoods with racial minorities, the groups critics have said were most targeted in criminal enforcement of marijuana laws. 

Another obstacle to passage has been concern by Long Island’s six Democratic senators about the law enforcement and health ramifications of legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults 21 years old and older.

"The governor has spoken to the leaders multiple times and staff has been working around the clock on our legislative priorities," the Cuomo administration said in a statement Sunday night. 

Critical to the political calculus are the six Long Island senators. State Democratic Committee chairman Jay Jacobs, the longtime Nassau County party leader, has warned that if lawmakers approve marijuana and the driver's license bill, Democrats could lose those Long Island seats in 2020.

On Thursday, Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead) told her fellow Democrats she would support the driver’s license bill because it was the “right thing to do,” according to officials in attendance. That a freshman senator in a swing district in Nassau County came out for the bill could change the dynamics, one analyst said.

“Considering she is the most vulnerable of them all, taking a stand is significant,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, referring to the Island’s freshman Democratic senators. “If Anna Kaplan is willing to take the risk in the swingiest of Long Island districts, it’s going to put pressure on a lot of other members.”

Democrats number 40 in the 63-seat Senate. Some party members think they have at least 32 supporters for the driver’s license bill, even if some suburban senators end up voting no.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, both Democrats, have said they will pursue an opt-out legislation if the state legalizes recreational marijuana sales. Suffolk’s opt-out has a sunset provision that would make marijuana legal after a year unless the county legislature votes to continue the ban.

About a dozen people gathered outside Cuomo's Manhattan office Sunday in support of marijuana law reform. The group pushed for passage of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. The law would allow those 21 and older to grow and use cannabis. It would also expunge prior marijuana-related criminal records and reinvest the tax revenue from legal sales into job training, economic empowerment, youth development programming, public schools, drug treatment programs and public education campaigns.

Emily Ramos, 25, of Manhattan, said reform would ensure no other child has to go through life without a parent because they were arrested for using or selling marijuana, which is legal in several other states. She said she did not meet her father until she was 3 years old, and it was on the other side of the glass during a visit to prison upstate. He didn’t get out until she was in seventh grade.

“I spent a good portion of my life growing up without my father and not having a relationship with him,” Ramos said. “No child should have to go 12 Father’s Days without their father because of marijuana prohibition.”

Others at the rally cited the expense of medical marijuana and racial disparities in canabis-related arrests as reasons to support legalization.

With Li Yakira Cohen

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