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Albany homestretch: Marijuana, measles, driver's licenses, rent control top the list

State senators consider legislation on May 8 at

State senators consider legislation on May 8 at the Capitol in Albany. Photo Credit: AP / Tim Roske

ALBANY — Laws on marijuana, measles, police shootings and, most pressingly, rent control hang in the balance as the 2019 session of the New York State Legislature moves to the final two weeks.

Rent control is the most pressing because, unlike the bulk of the thousands of other bills lawmakers will consider, the law governing about 1 million apartments is set to expire Saturday.

It’s the one issue Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the state Assembly and Senate must address.

But everything else is optional.

With Democrats in control of both houses, the tension this year isn’t based on party loyalty but on branch of government: Legislators versus the governor. Cuomo has been highly critical of his fellow Democrats and relations aren’t exactly great at the moment.

That’s the general landscape as lawmakers head toward the scheduled June 19 adjournment. Here are some of the issues, big and small, they are looking to settle:

RENT CONTROL

This is primarily a New York City issue, but impacts some Nassau County residents as well. With Democratic lawmakers in control, the issue isn’t so much whether to extend the laws, but how far to expand them.

A key issue is whether to make it harder for apartments to transition from controlled rents to market value.

Republicans during the tenure of former Republican Gov. George Pataki had installed conditions to determine when and how apartments moved to market value. Democrats say the playing field has been tilted toward landlords and want to reduce the number of apartments that make the transition; some want to outlaw conversions altogether, ensuring that apartments currently under rent control stay that way.

Others favor giving communities across New York a way to “opt in” to rent control. This idea is being pushed by some of the most liberal Democrats but opposed by moderates.

But Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Huntington) argued, “What’s getting lost in this discussion is Nassau and Suffolk counties are in a completely different place than New York City. We don’t have a large volume of rental housing. We have a rental housing crisis, particularly for young people.”

Gaughran said officials now can bargain with developers to require a certain share of new apartments be earmarked for low-income renters. Imposing rent control simply could discourage developers from building significant numbers of units on Long Island, he argued.

MARIJUANA

Part of the reason the issue is stalled is because lawmakers aren’t considering the simple question of whether to legalize recreational marijuana. They are rolling up all the associated issues — including taxes, licenses, grower certification, motor vehicle laws and who gets the revenue — into one ball of wax. It’s a lot of pieces to pull together with just days left in the session.

The primary sticking points, in practical terms, are how to divvy up the revenue and what criminal records related to marijuana offenses should be expunged, lawmakers said.

Beyond that, some Democrats don’t want to move ahead at this point. State party chairman Jay Jacobs has advised Democratic senators against voting for marijuana and some other proposals, saying they can’t push too far left in their first year in control of all the levers of state government.

That New Jersey recently shelved marijuana legislation indefinitely also has removed the urgency for New York to act, many officials said.

The state Assembly probably has the necessary votes to approve marijuana legalization, but the Senate doesn’t, said Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), lead sponsor of the bill.

Krueger said Cuomo, “has refused to come to the table” for three-way talks with the Senate and Assembly to hash out the details. Cuomo hasn't stepped in and has said it’s up to them to get it through their house.

MEASLES

New York is at the center of the 2019 measles outbreak — the largest in more than 25 years. In response, some Democrats are rallying behind a bill to eliminate any non-medical — primarily religious or philosophical — exemptions to vaccination laws.

Cuomo suggested initially that the bill might raise “constitutional” questions about freedom of religion. But more than 100 years’ of case history shows state and federal courts repeatedly have upheld laws requiring children to be vaccinated before entering school or day care, saying they don’t trample constitutional rights.

Days ago, Cuomo changed his view, saying: “I think it’s a mandate for public health that we pass that bill.” Legislative officials say the bill is gathering momentum.

DRIVER’S LICENSES

One of the most controversial issues is whether to permit people who are in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) has said extending driver’s licenses would ensure drivers have insurance, which could reduce hit-and-run accidents, and make it easier for farm laborers to get to work. The state’s largest business lobby and some insurance companies also have come out in favor.

Republicans say the proposal shows “blatant disregard” for taxpayers and the rule of law. The key will be whether Long Island and upstate Democrats in the Senate support the bill or want to hold off for now.

POLICE SHOOTINGS

Cuomo wants a law designating the state attorney general, instead of local district attorneys, to handle any cases involving civilians shot by police. Advocates of the approach say local prosecutors work daily with police, and therefore, face too many conflicts of interest in such cases.

Cuomo issued an executive order four years ago giving the AG’s office authority to handle such cases, although he said the move was temporary and could change with a new administration. He wants the concept enshrined in law.

SPORTS BETTING

New York has approved gambling on sports. But bets can be made only in person at one of four upstate casinos that were part of a gambling-expansion in 2013. Casinos, gambling companies and some state legislators now want to allow sports betting on mobile devices.

Cuomo has been opposed, saying authorization would require a constitutional amendment. Expansion supporters have reacted by proposing to require that all mobile betting be routed through computer network servers housed at the four casinos.

FARM LABOR

Labor activists and some legislators are pushing for a “farmworkers’ bill of rights,” which would include a 40-hour work week, an eight-hour work day and a day off per week. The New York Farm Bureau says the terms aren’t workable during harvest and other busy parts of the growing season.

Labor received a significant boost in late May when a state appellate court ruled farmworkers should have collective bargaining rights like other workers. Some dairy groups are proposing a compromise: a 60-65 hour work week and no strikes during certain months.

CHARTER SCHOOLS

Cuomo is a champion of expanding the number of charter schools, while a majority of Democratic legislators is opposed. That would appear to make expansion unlikely. But if lawmakers decide to take up an omnibus bill that combines all sorts of unrelated issues, don’t count out charter schools. That’s how they were authorized in the first place 20 years ago.

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