With the New York State legislative session finally over, there are some good new laws in place, but it’s hard to see how the process of lawmaking got any better.
That was the promise, remember?
With Democrats finally in charge of all three levers of state government, they would propose legislation, hold public hearings, debate openly and vote.
What the state got was too much action behind closed doors, too little thought given to important bills, and too headlong a rush to push things through that were pitched too late.
Democrats did accomplish a lot in their first year of regaining the majority. They started quickly in January, passing a raft of good legislation blocked for years by the GOP — like voting reforms and gender-discrimination legislation. The post-budget part of the session also yielded impressive progress. A landmark climate change law now in place sets nation-leading standards for carbon reduction, and extended labor protections for farmworkers will go in effect next year. It’s now easier to bring claims of sexual harassment in the workplace, and statutes of limitations on rape cases were extended. A much-abused religious exemption from vaccination requirements is gone, and a phaseout from common household products of 1,4-dioxane, which is contaminating our water, will soon be in effect.
But Democrats can do better at governing. The Senate inherited a bad process, and added its inexperience. Leadership was not as wise or strong as it needed to be — we could note charitably that transitions do take time in the power-warped corridors of Albany — as lawmakers too often substituted wish lists by advocacy groups for precisely crafted bills, oblivious to their consequences.
As fiery Senate newcomers pushed a progressive agenda long favored by their Assembly colleagues but one not always embraced by the more moderate Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, it was clear that Albany was undergoing a generational shift. That clash also brought into sharper relief a more traditional Albany schism — the divide between New York City and its suburbs, all the more pronounced now because it was within one party. While legislative Democrats did show some welcome independence from Cuomo, the only way the property tax cap became permanent was via a budget megadeal engineered by the governor.
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The problems were on display early when legislators passed their very first bill to make Dreamers, immigrants brought here illegally as children, eligible for state aid for college tuition. But the bill needed a fix later because it would have allowed foreign students on temporary visas to get assistance.
The bookend came in the session’s waning moments, when the Senate approved a top Democratic priority to automatically register for voting anyone who conducts business with state departments like motor vehicles. Somehow forgotten was that, just days before, the majority narrowly passed one of the session’s most controversial bills, allowing immigrants here illegally to obtain driver’s licenses. Those newly eligible for these licenses, to be marked “For Driving Only,” would be registered to vote unless they opt out on a DMV form. And an error in the language in the bill would have required them to not check the opt-out box. The sloppiness, which feeds GOP claims about fraudulent voting, caused the Senate to rescind its own bill in the final hours of the session for “technical” reasons, saying it would try again next year.
The drive to legalize recreational marijuana got hung up in part by an attempt to make it a jobs program for minority communities, while short shrift was given to driving-under-the-influence concerns of law enforcement. The bill should not have been the subject of last-minute negotiations. The issues were long known. The push to pass something began as soon as votes were counted in November. In the end, marijuana possession was decriminalized, a good first step, but efforts to fully legalize its use and sale will wait till next year.
Writers of another bill to reduce solitary confinement at state prisons did not realize it would cost the state $1 billion to do required fixes at local jails such as the one in Nassau County. The bill was shelved, though Cuomo said he would issue new regulations to reduce some of the harsher conditions prison reform advocates had demanded.
Organized labor’s big push to pay more workers prevailing wage — the hourly rate established in collective bargaining agreements — seemed certain to pass, but the deal collapsed at the last minute because too much negotiating was done in secret. Labor unions and advocates for higher wages got nothing. Even overdue rent regulation reforms were agreed upon with similar haste. One law allows a landlord to recoup only $15,000 over 15 years on improvements to an individual apartment and is likely to result in few improvements and deteriorating housing stock.
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Party leaders who enabled the leftward drift risk a backlash in next year’s elections in the Long Island and Hudson Valley suburbs, which were largely responsible for Democrats gaining the majority. They’ll have to defend votes that were as much a reaction to national politics as they were a response to state concerns.
The legislature passed and Cuomo signed a notable effort to eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system that went too far in eliminating cash bail for many defendants. A sweeping abortion law that permits late-term abortions if the mother’s health is threatened or the fetus isn’t viable is being targeted as abortion on demand.
If the state is to remain under one-party control, the challenge for Democrats is to improve the process of legislating and to realize they are governing for all New Yorkers.