Lawmakers end session with litany of liberal victories


The Associated Press

ALBANY — Last year Democrats won one-party control in Albany. This year they put it to use, scoring a litany of liberal victories that will touch every resident of the state.

New rights for immigrants, farmworkers and tenants. The nation’s most ambitious goal for reducing carbon emissions. The decriminalization of marijuana and the elimination of a religious vaccine exemption. Early voting. New campaign finance limits and a new legal standard for sexual harassment. A ban on plastic bags and a state law guaranteeing abortion rights.

“This was the most historic and productive legislative session in New York state history, period,” Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said early Friday morning as the Senate adjourned. Stewart-Cousins herself made history this year as the state’s first African-American woman to lead a legislative chamber.

For liberals exasperated by President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress, the session was a chance to push back and offer a different vision of government that they say should be a model for other states.

For the state’s Republicans, the session was a disaster, as Democrats passed one bill after another that GOP lawmakers had blocked when they controlled the state Senate. They complained that a measure authorizing driver’s licenses for immigrants in the U.S. illegally rewarded lawbreakers, and that another bill giving farmworkers the right to organize and earn overtime would bankrupt family farms.

“Here’s the good news: the six months from hell for upstate New York is over,” said Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, who said “radical extremists” had hijacked the Legislature.

Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan summed up the feelings of many Republicans Friday morning when he said, “It is historic. And I don’t think all of it’s good.”

Much of the Democrats’ success was due to a diverse group of freshman senators who quickly shook up Albany’s insider culture. Despite several harassment scandals, the Legislature hadn’t held a hearing focused on sexual harassment in 27 years. This year there were two, held at the behest of young female lawmakers who said they weren’t interested in preserving Albany’s status quo.

“This is only the beginning for us,” said Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-the Bronx, who sponsored a change to the state’s legal standard for sexual harassment that will make it easier for victims to prove harassment in court.

One-party rule wasn’t always harmonious, however, as the push to pass long-sought progressive measures exposed fault lines between moderates who warned of liberal overreach and progressive activists who helped Democrats win the Senate.

The session sometimes put Democratic lawmakers at odds with a fellow Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Despite his statements of support, critics accused Cuomo of not doing enough to push for legal marijuana, stronger rental protections or licenses for immigrants.

When Amazon ditched plans for a corporate campus in Queens this winter amid local opposition to public subsidies for the project, Cuomo lashed out at the Senate, accusing Democrats of killing the deal.

“I’ve never seen a more absurd situation where political pandering, and obvious pandering, so defeats a bona fide economic development project,” he said at the time.

While their relationship may have been acrimonious at times, Cuomo and top lawmakers came together on the year’s biggest bills, such as one codifying federal abortion rights in state law, and another that puts the state on track to generate 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2040.

“This has been the best environmental legislative session in a generation,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

Yet there were some notable disappointments for Democrats.

Measures to restrict the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and jails didn’t get a vote; instead, Cuomo agreed to direct state corrections officials to pursue more modest reforms.

Efforts to join the growing list of states that have legalized marijuana failed in the session’s last week after lawmakers couldn’t reach consensus on key details. Lawmakers quickly reached for a bill they termed “Plan B” which reduced criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of pot to a civil fine.

The decriminalization bill also allows for the expungement of past low-level pot convictions, a change that will impact some 600,000 people.

Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, cited that bill and others as evidence of a new day in Albany.

“It signals a break from the past,” he said, citing three reasons for the change: Democratic election wins, a crop of new progressive lawmakers, and Cuomo’s acceptance of the new dynamic. “It was sort of a perfectly good storm.”

By Patricia Older

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