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With Session Waning, NY Lawmakers Try To Reach Agreements

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt

State legislative leaders have announced an agreement in principle on nine bills that they say will extend and strengthen New York City’s rent laws. It’s part of an effort to get a number of bills passed before adjournment later in June.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, in a joint statement, say they will “will advance a historic package of tenant protections that encompasses the principles of the nine bills” that have been circulating at the Capitol in recent weeks.

But they were short on the details of those bills. Most of the measures have the votes to pass in the state Assembly. They include ending vacancy decontrol, which allows apartments to be removed from rent regulation restrictions once the rents reach a certain threshold, under increases granted each year by the rent board.

The Assembly supports a version of what tenants groups call the “good cause” bill. It would strengthen tenants’ rights against unfair evictions in all parts of the state.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke about the bills mid-week, saying they will include “elements” of the good cause bill.  

“I think at the day of the day, the Assembly, we can put forward a package that covers all nine issues,” Heastie said.

Despite the statement of an agreement in principle between the Democratic leaders, the bills face a more uncertain fate in the State Senate. The legislation might have to be modified to win approval from Democrats in more conservative districts on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.

Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins, also speaking mid-week, was not ready to talk specifics about which bills have the votes to pass right now.

“I don’t have a number that I’m prepared to give to you,” Stewart-Cousins said. "Based on what we've learned, I think we'll be able to work with the Assembly and get to a good place."

But Stewart-Cousins predicts the new rent laws will be the “strongest ever." Tenant advocates have urged the Senate and Assembly to work together on the rent laws without the Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, but Stewart-Cousins would not say whether or not she might do that.  

“We’ll do whenever it comes together, with whomever it comes together,” said Stewart-Cousins.  “We’re interested in getting the work done, and not so much, who does it first and who does it second.”

Cuomo has been criticizing his Democratic colleagues in the legislature in recent days for lack of action on renewing rent control and other items. But Cuomo has also threatened to veto any rent renewal agreement that is approved without his participation.

The governor on Friday pressed for two items he’d like to see finished before the session ends. He wants to legalize gestational surrogacy for couples that are infertile, and strengthen those rights for same sex couples.

The governor also wants to end the so-called “gay panic” defense that has been used in New York if someone commits violence against an LGBTQ person.  

Cuomo says time is growing short.

“We have 11 days left in the legislative session,” Cuomo said. “Eleven days is like two minutes left in a ballgame. It goes very quickly.”

There are some other major issues still on the table, including whether to grant standard driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, and legalizing the adult use of recreational marijuana. New versions of those bills have been introduced in recent days.

The bills might not have enough votes to pass either house right now, though the measures have many supporters in the Senate and Assembly. But Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins says, for recreational cannabis, at least, it’s only a matter of time.

“I don’t think anybody doubts that marijuana will be legalized,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Outstanding issues include where the revenue from the sale of marijuana should go, the Assembly sponsor wants reparations for communities adversely affected by the decades-long prohibition of the drug, and whether past criminal records for marijuana possession should be sealed or completely expunged.   

The rent laws expire on June 15, that date might give the governor and lawmakers the incentive they need to work together on a plan.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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