After a grueling year marked by Democratic infighting, New York State lawmakers are expected to conclude the 2023 legislative session this weekend with few marquee policy wins and a notable failure to address the state’s critical housing needs.
Despite last-ditch efforts, Democrats in control of the State Capitol failed to introduce or pass legislation to tackle the state’s affordable housing crisis, perhaps the most pressing issue on their policy agenda, leading to a public round of backbiting between lawmakers and Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Even so, Democrats were claiming victories on other fronts, weary as they were from drawn-out state budget negotiations that shortened their time to legislate.
Lawmakers on Friday night passed a long-stalled initiative to seal old criminal records to help people convicted of certain crimes re-enter society. They also passed a bill to create a commission to study reparations for Black people, making New York the second state after California to undertake such an initiative, and were pushing to expand health care services for undocumented immigrants.
And while a broad overhaul of the state’s Prohibition Era alcohol laws did not materialize, lawmakers found consensus on a bill to allow liquor stores to open before noon on Sundays.
Here’s what else got done, and what fell by the wayside.
A commission to study reparations
Following California’s lead, lawmakers passed a bill this week to create a commission that would study the effect that slavery had on racial disparities in New York and to recommend remedies.
The commission’s scope would be broad: It is expected to study not only the history of slavery, which was outlawed in 1827 in New York, but also its subsequent effects on housing discrimination, biased policing, income inequality and mass incarceration of African Americans.
“The consequences of slavery in New York State is not an echo of the past, but can still be observed in daily life,” reads a bill memo. “A sufficient inquiry has not been made into the effects of the institution of slavery on present-day society in New York.”
It remains unclear if Ms. Hochul will sign the bill. The commission’s recommendations would not be binding and would require approval by lawmakers.
A similar commission in California approved a report last month that recommended a sweeping statewide reparations program, including a formal apology to Black residents and billions of dollars in payments, that lawmakers must now consider.
Sealing criminal records
After years of failed attempts, Democrats approved legislation that would automatically seal the criminal records of people who have stayed out of trouble for a set period of time: eight years for felonies, three for misdemeanors.
Known as the Clean Slate Act, the bill is aimed at helping people who have paid their debt to society access the opportunities that will allow them to meaningfully rebuild their lives.
“This legislation is not about criminal justice only. It isn’t just about public safety. It isn’t just about economic justice. It isn’t just about equity and fairness,” said Catalina Cruz, the bill’s Assembly sponsor. “It’s about redemption.”
Despite opposition from Republicans in the minority, it won support from a broad coalition of business and labor groups, who say it will both reduce recidivism and boost the economy.
There are exceptions for the most serious crimes: Most class A felonies, which include murder, kidnapping and terrorism, would not be sealed. Neither would most sex crimes. Drug-related felonies would be sealed.
Ms. Hochul has previously expressed support for some version of the bill, but has not said publicly whether she intends to sign or veto it.
Last-minute changes to campaign finance reform
In 2019, Democrats moved to limit the influence of special interests in New York State politics by instituting public campaign financing. The program, which offers candidates matching funds for small-dollar donations received within their districts, was lauded by good-government groups. They said it would help make elected officials more responsive to their constituents and create more competitive primary and general elections.
But in the waning hours of session, Democrats pushed through a series of last-minute amendments, several of which have raised concerns among government watchdogs that Democrats were trying to water down the original reforms.
The changes, which passed the Assembly and Senate on Friday, are expected to benefit incumbents, helping Democrats fend off Republicans and primary challenges.
One of the changes, for example, will raise the number of in-district donors required to qualify for matching funds, while another would extend the public matching funds to larger contributions.
Democrats defended the changes, saying they were intended to clarify the program and to keep it from being abused by unserious candidates.
“New York has taken the lead by standing up the most ambitious public campaign finance program in the nation,” Zellnor Myrie, the bill’s senate sponsor, said, adding: “These updates will ensure the program’s first year is a success.”
John Kaehny, the executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog, said that the Democrats’ move to weaken their own law was “shameful,” particularly in the context of national threats to democracy.
“I think it’s embarrassing for Democrats everywhere who are campaigning for free and fair elections,” he said.
A housing deal crumbles
A last-minute deal on housing fell to pieces on Thursday, leaving tenant activists, real estate developers and political leaders bemoaning the lack of action in a state contending with a dearth of housing and some of the highest rents and housing prices in the nation.
A package that Democratic lawmakers were working on would have combined a number of proposals to boost housing supply, including an extension for a developer tax credit that incentivizes affordable housing and a proposal to help remodel empty offices into apartments.
It could have also included safeguards for tenants through a measure known as “good-cause eviction,” which would cap rent increases and guard against many evictions.
In a rare joint statement, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the majority leader in the State Senate, and Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, said lawmakers had reached an agreement on legislation, but that Ms. Hochul was opposed to it.
But lawmakers never introduced any legislation, despite having supermajorities that could override the governor’s veto, raising questions about whether they actually had the votes to pass a housing package.
Earlier this year, Ms. Hochul had proposed a broader housing plan to spur housing construction statewide, particularly in the suburbs, but it was opposed by lawmakers. The governor has vowed to pursue some housing policies via executive action, but any meaningful action by lawmakers will have to wait until 2024.
Increasing turnout in local elections
Lawmakers passed legislation to move some of the state’s local elections outside New York City to even-numbered years, aligning them with presidential and congressional election cycles. It would affect races for county executives and county legislatures, but would not apply to elections for judges, sheriffs, district attorneys and county clerks.
The move, Democrats say, is meant to boost voter turnout in local elections by consolidating them around state and national elections, which draw significantly more voters than local elections held in odd years.
Republicans vehemently opposed the measure, saying it amounted to a political power play meant to benefit Democrats, who tend to do better in New York during presidential elections.
Lawmakers also set the date for the 2024 presidential primary: April 2, earlier than the two previous primaries, potentially aligning New York with neighboring Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Will Hochul veto a “wrongful death” bill again?
For the second year in a row, lawmakers passed a bill meant to overhaul the state’s “wrongful death” law, with the aim of allowing damages to be sought for “emotional loss” in addition to potential lost income.
Ms. Hochul vetoed the bill after lawmakers first passed it last year, saying it was overreaching and had passed without a serious evaluation of its impact. She noted the potential it had to hike insurance premiums, echoing concerns from the business community and medical organizations.
Cognizant of the governor’s concerns, lawmakers tweaked the legislation this year to create a shorter statute of limitations to file claims, among other modifications. Ms. Hochul said on Wednesday that she had not yet reviewed the new legislation.
What didn’t make the cut
Far more legislative initiatives failed to make it across the finish line, including a proposal to remove a natural gas subsidy in the name of climate protection.
One high-profile bill that failed to advance is Sammy’s Law, which would allow New York City to lower its speed limit to 20 miles per hour. The bill bears the name of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, a 12-year-old who was killed by a speeding van on the Brooklyn street where he lived in 2013. Sammy’s Law passed in the Senate, but has not advanced out of the Assembly.
A bipartisan push to rename the bridge that connects parts of Westchester and Rockland Counties also failed.
After the bridge commonly known as the Tappan Zee — it was renamed the Gov. Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge in 1994 — was rebuilt in 2017, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo renamed it after his late father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. But calls to restore the bridge’s original moniker grew after the younger Mr. Cuomo resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment.
A bill to add Tappan Zee back into the bridge’s name passed the Senate, but died in the Assembly.
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