5 major issues to watch as New York lawmakers ready for end-of-session push
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, talked to reporters May 22, 2019, about whether New York will legalize marijuana before the legislative session ends in mid-June. Democrat and Chronicle
ALBANY – New York lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have seven scheduled working days left to hammer out deals on major issues like marijuana legalization and driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.
The state Legislature's annual session is set to close June 19, with lawmakers scheduled to be in Albany four days this coming week and three the week after.
The end-of-session deal-making is already in full swing.
Here are five major issues to watch as time continues to wind down:
Rent regulations due to expire
About 1 million residential units in New York City and its suburbs — including about 40,000 in Westchester, Rockland and Nassau — are part of the state's rent control or stabilization programs, which limit rent costs by allowing a board to establish what percentage it can increase each year.
But those programs are due to expire June 15, setting up a showdown between tenant advocates pushing for greater protections and powerful landlords looking for more leeway.
There's also a push among some lawmakers to expand the rent-stabilization program statewide, allowing cities, towns and villages to opt in if their housing stock is at least 95 percent filled and the buildings were built before 1974.
The Democrat-led Assembly supports nine rent-focused bills to extend and bolster the program. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said there is "support" within her conference for all nine bills.
“The Senate and the Assembly together are ready to work with the governor to deliver the strongest rent package ever to meet the needs of tenants across the State of New York," Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said in a joint statement Wednesday.
But Cuomo has cast doubt on whether Senate Democrats have the votes to pass the bills.
"They have to stop talking and start voting," Cuomo said Friday on WAMC-FM in Albany. "If they don't pass a bill, rent laws expire on the 15th and this will be mayhem."
Should adult-use marijuana be legal?
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, speaks to reporters at the state Capitol about marijuana legalization efforts; May 29, 2019. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
At the start of the year, a push to legalize recreational marijuana for adult use had plenty of momentum in New York.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo had embraced the idea, citing neighboring states that had legalized it or were leaning that way. And Democrats had taken control of the Senate for the first time in eight years.
But in the months that followed, that momentum has slowed thanks to opposition from police agencies, school groups and suburbanites.
Still, 30 Democrats in the Senate have said they support legalization or are leaning that way, leaving it just two votes shy of passage with seven working days left in the legislative session.
Again, Cuomo isn't optimistic that it can get done.
"Marijuana, I think if I kept the Senate there for the next 10 years, they couldn't pass marijuana," he said Friday.
Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, has accused Cuomo of not taking an active role in negotiations over the marijuana bill, which she sponsors. She's called on Cuomo to get more involved to persuade on-the-fence senators.
Women's and LGBTQ rights
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on May 31, 2019, held a news conference at his Manhattan offices to announce his support for a law that would allow for couples to hire a surrogate to carry their baby. It is currently illegal in New York. Democrat and Chronicle
Cuomo and Democratic lawmakers are pushing a handful of bills aimed at expanding or solidifying the rights of women and LGBTQ.
As it stands, New York's constitution says no person shall be discriminated against based on "race, color, creed or religion."
Cuomo has called for passage of an Equal Rights Amendment that would add a person's sex to that constitutional protection.
But some lawmakers and advocates are looking for a more inclusive amendment that would add sex, gender identity, pregnancy status and other categories.
A constitutional amendment must be passed by consecutively elected sessions of the Legislature before it is put to a statewide referendum.
Cuomo, meanwhile, is pushing two bills that he says would expand LGBTQ rights.
One would allow for paid surrogacy, which would let gay or infertile couples contract with a woman to carry their baby. As it stands, New York doesn't allow a couple to pay a surrogate.
Women's organizations, however, are wary of the bill and have expressed concern about women being exploited.
The other bill would end what's known as the "gay panic" defense in criminal cases, which is the concept that a person committed an assault or similar crime because they learned of someone's sexual orientation and were driven to act out.
Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants
Eddie Taveras, New York immigration manager for FWD.us, discusses the Green Light bill during an interview in the USA TODAY Network's Albany Bureau, April 10, 2019. Wochit
This is one of the more controversial issues for Democrats to figure out.
Undocumented immigrants and their advocates are pushing for the right to get a driver's license in New York, which they say would allow them to drive legally to get to work and stores while allowing them to obtain insurance.
But there are many critics of the measure, including Senate Republicans who say they will campaign on the measure and county clerks who say they are ill equipped to deal with its consequences.
Specifically, the bill would make foreign identification and passports as an acceptable form of ID to receive a license. As it stands, a driver has to have a social-security number to get a license in New York.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, issued a statement Thursday urging his Democratic colleagues to block the bill.
"Either you stop the so-called 'Green Light' bill from coming to the floor or you signal to every one of your constituents that you support giving driver’s licenses to people who are here illegally," he said. "It’s really that simple."
Ending the religious exemption for vaccines
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee speaks out in favor of a bill ending religious exemptions to vaccines, April 29, 2019. Rockland/Westchester Journal News
New York's measles outbreak has largely been concentrated in the Orthodox Jewish communities of Rockland County and Brooklyn.
Current state law allows parents to send their unvaccinated children to school only if they claim they have a religious-based opposition to vaccines.
A bill in the state Legislature would end that religious exemption, much like California has.
Cuomo and proponents of the bill say it would help protect the public health, pointing to the still-ongoing measles outbreak. But religious-rights advocates claim it would infringe on their First Amendment protections.
On Wednesday, Cuomo put the bill's chances of passage at "50-50." It's been the subject of intense debate both in the Senate and Assembly.
"Public health comes first, and I think it is a mandate for public health that we pass that bill," Cuomo said.