New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared the legislative session that wrapped up Friday “the most productive in modern history.” WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas garnered reaction from local lawmakers.
Democratic state Senator Neil Breslin of the 44th district says he's the happiest he's been in years. "A lot of very important legislation that's helped New Yorkers in general and some groups in particular were passed during the past six months, and I attribute much of it to the Democratic Senate and in particular Andrea Stewart-Cousins."
Breslin shared his personal session highlights. "We have tenant-landlord laws that cover the entire state. I think that landlords were having too much power. And we live in a state where some folks are paying 60 percent of their income to housing, and we have to do more as a state to provide affordable housing. That's one. Voting reform is another, health care is another, and it just goes on and on and on..."
Republican state Senator George Amedore from the 46th district has a different point of view: "This legislative session was disappointing. Under one-party rule in Albany we saw a shift to an extremely liberal agenda and more big government influence. Taxes went up, burdensome regulations were increased, and there was a lack of focus on policies to help make New York more affordable to live and work."
Working through the annual last-minute crunch, the legislature fell short of legalizing adult recreational marijuana use, but did agree to decriminalize marijuana possession. When it came down to the wire, proponents conceded there simply wasn't enough time to push the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act through. Democratic state Assemblyman John McDonald represents the 108th district: "As much as many people wanted to see the legalization of adult use of marijuana, there were many others that had concerns, myself included, knowing full well it will happen but we wanted to make sure, first and foremost, that we take some aggressive steps towards decriminalization, because too many members of our community, particularly black and brown community, have been wrongly incarcerated for extensive periods of time. It's unacceptable."
Amedore argues the law would have allowed anyone of any age to possess marijuana... "...which is an illegal drug, according to federal standards and laws so. I that's dangerous because we all know that marijuana is a gateway drug and we already have an epidemic in society with addiction, substance abuse disorder, that's costing us a great deal of human resources as well as money."
Lawmakers were also unable to pass HALT, the Human Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act. Again, McDonald: "Although we're trying to find legislative solutions, the governor has committed to administrative processes with the legislature to review all that needs to go into to reducing the time that individuals spend in solitary confinement. It's not that simple as just moving them to a different cell. What people don't realize is that there is a progression within the corrections system that these individuals in solitary confinement. What I found to be very important, particularly as a health care professional, is that there's a recognition that many individuals who are incarcerated, who particularly are in solitary confinement, have continued to struggle with many mental helath issues and emotional issues, and it's hoped that the governor will follow through on this in the months, if not years, to come."
Legislators did muster enough votes to pass the "Green Light Bill," designed to give undocumented immigrants the right to a driver's license. Amedore voted against the measure, fearing it could open a Pandora's box. "The ability for illegal immigrants, those who came to this country, broke the laws to come into this country, now could have the ability to vote if it's not done carefully, properly, because of technology and this one-party rule in Albany, which has passed some elections reform bills, so I think that that is disturbing because the last thing we need is an illegal immigrant having the rights and privileges of a U.S. citizen or a state citizen to engage in activities. I think that's disturbing."
McDonald also voted no. "I thought there were flaws in the language. I think it was putting those undocumented immigrants in a very vulnerable position. And I think there was such a rush to do it and excitement to do it there were some flaws that were left exposed, particularly when you look at the fact that the legislature was on the cusp of approving automatic voter registration, which would have allowed many indivduals who are undocumented to be able to be enrolled in the election. Which was not the intention, is not supposed to be the outcome. So I think there are gonna be a lot of challenges to this and unfortunately it's gonna be a lot of energy spent from all sides of the aisle because we have a failed immigration system from the federal government, and we need to correct it."
Breslin doesn't believe court challenges, which Gov. Cuomo characterized as imminent, will derail the new law: "People don't realize that undocumenteds, people in this state, drove and had licenses for 50 years, up until about 12, 14 years ago. And it was only inadvertently taken away from them then. So if they have driver’s licenses we can hopefully make sure they have insurance, which is one of the requirements of being able to drive, and insurance helps the economy, it helps us as licensed drivers with insurance, so hopefully it'll work out."