This was just the first official week of the 2019 legislative session, and history-making legislation is already headed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's desk.
A STEP CLOSER TO EARLY VOTING
Both the state Senate and Assembly on Monday passed a series of bills which will fundamentally change the way New Yorkers vote. They include:
- Early voting — voters can cast ballots as early as nine days prior to Election Day.
- A unified primary day — the September state primary date will be eliminated and instead be held the same day as the June federal primary.
- Closing of the LLC Loophole — this would limit corporations' ability to open Limited Liability Companies (LLC) and make virtually unlimited political campaign contributions.
- Same-day voter registration — this will require a state constitutional amendment, which will eventually go to voters in a referendum.
- No-excuse absentee — this will also need a constitutional amendment.
Cuomo supports the reforms, but he has until next week to veto the bills or they automatically become law.
LAWMAKERS APPROVE PROTECTIONS FOR GENDER EXPRESSION, TRANSGENDER NEW YORKERS
The legislature continued forging ahead Tuesday, passing a ban on the practice known as "gay conversion therapy." Lawmakers also passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, or GENDA, which prevents discrimination against transgender New Yorkers. Cuomo is expected to sign the measure into law.
Aspects of the bill were first approved in the state's civil rights regulation by Cuomo in 2015 after Republicans, who controlled the Senate at the time, declined to take up the bill.
Lawmakers had previously in 2002 approved the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, but advocates have argued the legislation fell short of protections for transgender and gender expression when it comes to housing, the workplace, and other facets of life.
CUOMO CALLS FOR CONGESTION PRICING, LEGALIZING POT
Not to be outdone by lawmakers, the governor moved up his budget message and State of the State address to Tuesday. It was originally scheduled for January 29. Cuomo put many of the same policy proposals that the legislature plans on passing in his proposed budget. The state budget does not need to be finalized until April 1.
Cuomo put an emphasis on legalizing recreational marijuana and instituting congestion pricing in Manhattan. Cars driving into the central business district would be charged a fee and that money would then be used to assist mass transit, including the ailing New York City subway system.
Democrats now control both houses of the legislature, but throughout most of Cuomo's tenure, Republicans controlled the Senate. That often meant that most policy proposals had to be negotiated by Cuomo and the two legislative leaders, and then a compromise bill would be voted on by both houses as part of the budget.
That dynamic has now fundamentally shifted with the legislature acting on legislation weeks ahead of the budget. The new paradigm was on full display in Albany this past week.
CUOMO TIES MTA FUNDING TO CONGESTION PRICING
But the governor flexed his leverage Thursday, saying he's so determined to get legislators to support congestion pricing that he has tied more than $7 billion that the state plans to give to the MTA to passing some version of a congestion pricing scheme.
While many lawmakers are already on board with congestion pricing, some feel linking critical money to passing it is not the best approach.
"I, and those of us who are part of the new cohort in the state Senate, for certain feel very strongly that we ran because we want to change the culture in Albany," Queens State Sen. Jessica Ramos said. "We need to stop this tit-for-tat. Congestion pricing is something that needs to happen. Speed cameras is something that needs to happen. But you can't hold funds hostage."
In a statement, State Budget Director Rob Mujica said, "Given the urgent need to provide substantial additional funding to the MTA, we made a strategic decision to tie these critical measures together to ensure the legislature does not dismiss them out of hand."
Further complicating matters, Cuomo's budget language also mixes congestion pricing in with his call for more speed cameras in school zones and a reorganization of the MTA board — although there are still not many details about what the new structure would look like.