After a grueling year marked by Democratic infighting, New York State lawmakers are expected to end this weekend's 2023 legislative session with a slight marquee policy win and a landmark failure to meet the state's critical housing needs.
Despite last-ditch efforts, the Democrats who control the State Capitol fail to introduce or pass legislation to address the state's affordable housing crisis, perhaps the most pressing issue on their policy agenda, leading to a round of public slander between lawmakers and Governor Kathy. . Hochul.
Even so, Democrats are claiming victory on other fronts, exhausted by protracted state budget negotiations that cut short their time to write laws.
Lawmakers are expected to pass a long stalled initiative to seal old criminal records to help people convicted of certain crimes reintegrate into society. They also passed legislation to create a commission to study reparations for blacks, made New York the second state after California to undertake such an initiative, and pushed for to expand health services for undocumented immigrants.
Here's what was done, and what failed.
A commission to study reparations
Following California's lead, lawmakers passed bill this week to create a commission that will study the effects of slavery on racial differences in New York and recommend solutions.
The scope of the commission will be broad: It hopes to study not only the history of slavery, which was outlawed in 1827 in New York, but also its subsequent impact on housing discrimination, biased policing, income inequality, and the mass incarceration of African Americans.
“The consequences of slavery in New York State are not echoes of the past, but are still observable in everyday life,” the bill memo read. “Inadequate investigations have not been conducted into the effects of the institution of slavery on present-day society in New York.”
It remains unclear whether Ms. Hochul will sign the bill. The commission's recommendations will not be binding and require the approval of MPs.
A similar commission in California approved a report last month recommending a comprehensive statewide reparations program, including a formal apology to black residents and a multibillion-dollar payment, which lawmakers must now consider.
Sealing of criminal records
After years of failed attempts, Democrats are expected to approve legislation that will automatically close the criminal records of people who stay out of trouble for a set length of time: eight years for felonies, three years for misdemeanors. The move passed the Assembly 82-64, with more than a dozen Democrats voting against.
Known as the Clean Slate Act, the bill is aimed at helping people who have paid their debt to society access opportunities that will allow them to meaningfully rebuild their lives.
“This law is not only about criminal justice. It's not just about public safety. It's not just about economic justice. This is not just about equality and fairness,” said Catalina Cruz, assembly sponsor of the bill. “It's about redemption.”
Despite opposition from the Republican minority, it has the backing of a broad coalition of business and labor groups, which say it will reduce recidivism and boost the economy.
There are exceptions for the most serious crimes: Most class A crimes, which include murder, kidnapping, and terrorism, will not be sealed. So do most sex crimes. Drug-related crimes will be sealed.
Ms Hochul has previously expressed support for several versions 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 finance. The program, which offers matching funds to candidates for a small donation received in their district, has been praised by good government groups. They say it will help make elected officials more responsive to their constituents and create more competitive primaries and general elections.
But in the dwindling session hours, Democrats are pushing for a series of last-minute amendments, some of which have raised concerns among government watchdogs that Democrats are trying to water down early reforms.
The changes, which passed the Assembly and Senate on Friday, are expected to benefit the incumbent, helping Democrats fend off Republicans and key challenges.
One change, for example, would increase the number of local donors needed to qualify for matching funds, while another would expand public matching funds to larger contributions.
Democrats defended the change, saying it was intended to clarify the program and keep it from being abused by candidates who aren't serious.
“New York has taken the lead by running the most ambitious public campaign finance program in the nation,” Zellnor Myrie, the bill's senate sponsor, added: “This update will ensure the program's first year is a success.”
John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog, said the Democrats' move to undermine their own legislation was “shameful”, especially in the context of a national threat to democracy.
“I think it's an embarrassment to Democrats everywhere who campaign for free and fair elections,” he said.
The housing deal collapsed
Last-minute housing deals fell through on Thursday, leaving tenant activists, real estate developers and political leaders bemoaning the lack of action in a state that competes with housing shortages and some of the nation's highest rents and housing prices.
A package being worked on by Democratic lawmakers would incorporate a number of proposals to increase the housing supply, including an extension of a developer tax credit that incentivizes affordable housing and a proposal to help turn vacant offices into apartments.
It could also include protection for tenants through a measure known as a “good cause eviction,” which would limit rent increases and protect against multiple evictions.
In a rare joint statement, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the majority leader in the State Senate, and Carl E. Heastie, chairman of the Assembly, said lawmakers had reached an agreement on the legislation, but Ms. Hochul was against it.
But lawmakers have never introduced any law, despite having a supermajority that can override a governor's veto, raising questions about whether they actually had a say in passing the housing package.
Earlier this year, Ms. Hochul had proposed a broader housing plan to spur housing construction across the state, particularly in the suburbs, but was opposed by lawmakers. The governor has promised to pursue some housing policies through executive action, but any meaningful action from lawmakers will have to wait until 2024.
Increase the number of voters in regional head elections
MP is ready to pass legislation to move many state local elections outside of New York City to an even year, aligning them with the presidential and congressional election cycles.
The move, Democrats say, is intended to increase turnout in city and county elections by consolidating them around state and national elections, which attract significantly more voters than local elections held in odd years.
Republic strongly opposed this actionsaid it amounted to a political power play meant to favor Democrats, who tended to do better in New York during the presidential race.
Lawmakers also set a date for the 2024 presidential primary: April 2, earlier than the previous two primaries, potentially aligning New York with neighboring Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Will Hochul veto the “wrong death” bill again?
For the second year in a row, lawmakers passed legislation purporting to overhaul the state's “wrongful death” law, with the aim of allowing damages for “emotional loss” in addition to potential loss of income.
Ms Hochul vetoed the bill after lawmakers first passed it last year, saying it was too much and had been passed without a serious evaluation of its impact. He noted the potential for driving up insurance premiums, echoing concerns from the business community and medical organizations.
Aware of governors' concerns, lawmakers changed the law this year to create a shorter statute of limitations for bringing claims, among other modifications. Ms Hochul said on Wednesday that he had not yet reviewed the new law.
What didn't work
Far more legislative initiatives have failed to make it to the finish line, including a proposal to remove natural gas subsidies in the name of climate protection.
One famous bill that failed to advance was Sammy's Law, which allowed 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 van speeding down a Brooklyn street where he lived in 2013. Sammy's law passed in the Senate, but has not yet left the Assembly.
Similarly unknown is the future of the bipartisan push to rename the bridge connecting parts of Westchester and Rockland County.
After the bridge commonly known as Tappan Zee – renamed Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge in 1994 – was rebuilt in 2017, former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo renamed it after his late father, former Governor Mario M. Cuomo. But calls to reinstate the bridge's original moniker grew after the younger Mr Cuomo resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
A bill to add Tappan Zee back to the bridge's name passed the Senate, but its fate was uncertain in the Assembly.