New York Adjourns Historic Legislative Session. Here's What Remains on Prisons, Marijuana & More

Tweet This

New York State Assembly Chamber

Flickr

The private sector is far from the only force influencing the economics of our everyday lives. From tax credits and opportunity zones, to red-lining to rent-control, state governments have the power to exacerbate or remedy social issues in the communities they are designed to serve.

As the sun rose into the early Friday morning hours, New York lawmakers were still working through countless bills before officially adjourning their 2019 legislative session. The Democratic Party took full advantage of their control of the state government — the first time this has happened in more than a decade. Senate Democrats especially enjoyed their rare majority position: for almost an uninterrupted century the chamber has belonged to a Republican majority (until six historically Republican Long Island seats flipped blue last year.)

Many are calling this the most progressive session in New York history , and for good reason: over 300 left-leaning bills passed the legislature, and 47 have so far been signed into law by Governor Cuomo. A number on touch critical economic issues, in particular for low-income families, such as rent control and policies on cash bail. As a refresher on the mechanics of passing new state laws: a Senator proposes a new policy idea, the idea is drafted into a bill, the bill undergoes a committee process, the Senate passes the bill, the Assembly passes the bill, and then, finally, the bill is signed into law by the Governor. Let’s take a look at a few of the bills that successfully made their way through this rigorous process, and which legislative issues may require extra energy in order to be on next year’s legislative docket. It’s important to keep in mind that none of the bills listed here that did not pass were explicitly vote “no” on by the legislature — meaning they have the potential to be reintroduced in the future.

Legislative successes:

  • Passage of measures that nearly eliminate carbon emissions: By investing in vast wind, solar, and hydropower infrastructure, New York plans to achieve an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “While Washington is asleep at the wheel, New York is leading the way,” stated Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Nassau), the bill’s sponsor.
  • Secured the right to abortion: 26 years after Roe v. Wade, the Reproductive Health Act will ensure that abortion remains legal in New York State — no matter what happens at the federal level. The bill also strips any punishments for abortions from New York’s penal code.
  • Ended cash bail for many criminal defendants: New York became the third state to stop using cash bail to get those accused of misdemeanor and non-violent, low-level offenses to return to court. “[This is] really huge in terms of keeping people out of our jails, allowing people to continue on with their lives, continuing working, supporting their families, not losing their apartments — all the things that happen when people spend even a night in jail,” stated Emily NaPier Singletary, co-founder of Unchained.
  • Drivers licenses made available for undocumented New Yorkers: “New York’s leadership to restore access to driver’s licenses will transform the lives of thousands of immigrants like me and make our state safer. Families like mine on Long Island and across the state will be able to take our children to school, drive to work and carry out our basic needs, without fear that a traffic stop could separate us from our loved ones,” said Silvia Garcia, Long Island resident and member of Make the Road New York. “This historic victory will allow New Yorkers to go through the same process as everyone else: submit an application, take a road test, and, if they pass, obtain a license.”
  • Tougher sexual harassment laws: In the wake of #MeToo, a group of former legislative staffers formed the Sexual Harassment Working Group to propose solutions to decades of ongoing abuse. According to the New York Times, “the legislation eliminates the state’s ‘severe or pervasive’ standard for proving harassment, which advocates said had allowed judges to dismiss claims of inappropriate comments or even groping as insufficiently hostile.”
  • New protections for farmworkers: After working more than 60 hours in a week, farmworkers in New York now have the right to receive overtime pay that is one and a half times their regular wages.
  • Strengthened rent regulations in tenants’ favor: The Housing Stability And Tenant Protections Act of 2019 includes protections that tenant advocates have long pushed for as part of  “universal rent control;including “ending high-rent vacancy deregulation, narrowing the preferential rent loophole, and putting more protections against unnecessary major capital improvements (MCIs) and individual apartment improvements (IAI) in place.”
  • Decriminalization of marijuana: Bill S6579A allows individuals who have formerly been convicted on marijuana possession to file for expungement of the charge from their records —  which could benefit as many as 600,000 New Yorkers. Additionally, possession of one to two ounces can now only be punishable by a fine (capped at $200), rather than the possibility of jail time.

Legislative efforts that were stalled:

  • Recreational marijuana was not legalized: "Through months of negotiation and conversation ... we made great strides," said Sen. Liz Krueger, lead sponsor of the main legalization bill, in a statement. "We came very close to crossing the finish line, but we ran out of time.”
  • Automatic voter registration did not pass: A typo in a bill implementing an automatic voter registration system halted the bill from passing in this session. “We will pass this updated bill at the next available opportunity when we are in legislative session,” stated Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).
  • Proposals to reform solitary confinement in prisons fell short: Though the original proposal to restrict the use of solitary confinement in prison to 15 days was not accepted, an agreement was reached to ban state prisons from using solitary confinement on “pregnant, disabled or adolescent inmates.” Additionally, a 30-day cap on isolation was approved.
  • A single payer health care law in NY didn’t become reality — again: The proposal has been floated in the legislature for nearly two decades, and now has a fighting chance with a Democratic majority. However, both chambers agree to hold more hearings with healthcare experts before making a decision, including on where the funding will come from and how much of a tax hike there will ultimately be on wealthy New Yorkers.
  • Sex work has not been decriminalized: The bill, the Stop Violence Against Sex Trades Act, would ensure that “consulting adults who trade sex, collaborate with or support sex working peers, or patronize adult sex workers are not criminalized.” Former and current sex workers and advocates vow to keep fighting on this measure for upcoming legislative opportunities.  

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, what happened in New York these past six months is a testament to the potential mass influence that activists and advocates can have on the law. At the state level, Democratic lawmakers are eager to continue passing progressive reforms in this window of opportunity where they hold the legislative majority. However, this break in the legislative session may also mean more time for opposition groups to hire lobbyists to further stall some of the issues above. Come January 1st, we’ll see which solutions remain pipe dreams and which have a fair shot at the legislative process.

Special thanks to Senator Brian Benjamin and Jasmine Rashid for their contributions to this piece. Disclosures related to my work here.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.

I am an investor and activist who has been building bridges between finance and social justice for close to twenty years. In that time, I've influenced over $150 Billion...