ALBANY — With Democrats in full control, state lawmakers completed a 2019 legislative session full of progressive victories.
They overturned a landmark rent law, overhauled voting and campaign finance, enacted a plan they say will fight climate change, expanded farmworkers’ rights and helped people in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses and college aid.
They fell short of enacting a comprehensive law to legalize recreational marijuana, because of disagreements over tax revenue, among other things. Instead, they moved to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot and said they will rejoin the issue next year.
“This was the most historic and productive legislative session in New York state history. Period,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) upon concluding her first year as the state’s most powerful senator and the first African-American woman to hold the post.
In contrast, Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady) called it “six months of hell for taxpayers,” saying it was too dominated by New York City Democrats.
“We’ve had one voice, from one affiliation, from one region of the state controlling the State of New York,” Tedisco said.
Stewart-Cousins can make a claim on the numbers. Lawmakers shepherded 935 bills through both houses from January to July, a nearly 50 percent increase over 2018 and the most since 2006, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Beyond the politicians, here’s a look at how key constituencies fared in 2019 in Albany:
Renters: The Democrats enacted new laws that will affect more than 1 million rent-regulated apartments in the state. They repealed “vacancy decontrol,” the means by which landlords could get apartments deregulated. That will put an end to the process that has been in place for 25 years and has caused 300,000 or more apartments to move out of rent control and into the open market.
Greens: Lawmakers approved a climate change plan that requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050, and orders the state to use carbon-free power by 2040. Also approved: a ban on plastic bags. Supporters say New York now has the most, or among the most, aggressive climate change plans among the 50 states. Critics say the plan will be costly to businesses and homeowners, force the retrofitting of many buildings and ultimately prove unrealistic in such a short time frame.
Farmworkers: 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 for some 80 years that allowed farmworkers to be treated differently than other workers — a change, some said, will cause some farms to go under.
Those fighting sexual abuse/harassment: Lawmakers approved measures to allow victims of long ago sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits against their perpetrators, extend the statute of limitations ond second- and third-degree rape and ease the hurdles for pursuing sexual harassment in the workplace claims.
People in the country illegally: Lawmakers passed bills to allow people in the country illegally to apply for college aid and to obtain driver’s licenses.
Criminal defendants: Under laws adopted this year, an estimated 90 percent of defendants charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies won’t have to post bail to be released from jail. Prosecutors will have to turn over evidence or “discovery” materials much quicker to defense attorneys, allowing clients more time to decide whether to plea bargain or proceed to trial. Speedy trial guarantees were strengthened and asset forfeiture laws loosened. District attorneys fought many of the proposals and, largely, lost.
Real Estate/Landlords: The end of vacancy decontrol was huge for this group — traditionally one of the most generous of campaign donors, especially to Republicans. It means an end to a 25-year trend of growing the number of deregulated apartments. They also lost a provision that allowed them to increase rent by up to 20 percent, even in rent-stabilized apartments, when a tenant moves out. According to numerous reports, real-estate titans made last-minute phone calls to Cuomo to urge him to block the legislature’s actions. He didn’t — another sign of real estate’s diminished clout.
Amazon: The Internet giant pulled the plug in February on a deal it struck with Cuomo to build a second headquarters in Queens. Some will say the losers in the deal are the New Yorkers who could have snagged some of the 25,000 jobs Amazon was promising. Or Democrats in the State Senate and New York City Council, who, critics say, chased the company away. Even if so, this also was a failure for Amazon because it was the first time it was so publicly spurned. It grossly miscalculated that its jobs promise would mute any criticism of the $3 billion in tax giveaways it was offered and its refusal to hire union workers.
Gambling companies: Lawmakers rejected appeals to legalize online sports betting, bail out financially struggling upstate casinos and increase the number of video slots operated by Suffolk Off-Track Betting Corp.