Heastie: Adult-Use Marijuana Likely To Be Decided Outside Of Budget

A measure that would legalize adult use marijuana in New York will likely wait until after the state budget is finalized at the end of March, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Thursday said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $175 billion spending proposal includes a marijuana legalization plan, which would reorganize how cannabis is regulated in New York as well as a tax plan for retail sales.

But the issue is a complex one, even beyond the taxes. Lawmakers are discussing how to pair marijuana legalization with a criminal justice reform effort that could expunge the records of those charged with marijuana-related offenses.

At the same time, lawmakers want to provide incentives for communities affected by drug laws to profit from the program, steering away from a large corporation that would be interested in a license. Cuomo’s proposal includes similar provisions.

All that likely adds up to a longer debate that could last through the remainder of the legislative session, scheduled to end in June.

“We’ll talk about it. I’ll be honest: I don’t know if six weeks is enough time to get it done,” Heastie said. “If it can happen, great. But if not, we’ll deal with it. But more than getting things done quickly, it’s better to get things correctly.”

Lawmakers over the last month have approved a series of high-profile measures enabled by the Democratic majority in the state Senate, including bills meant to make it easier to vote, the Dream Act, the Child Victims Act, abortion rights and protections for transgender people.

Heastie acknowledged the issues will become more complex for legislators, such as changes to the criminal justice system. Lawmakers and Cuomo are seeking ways of ending cash bail, among other proposals.

“I think we’ll continue to go down our list of priorities,” he said. “It’s not that some things are easier or harder, but things were just done.”

Rozic Organizes Push Against Title IX Changes

From the Morning Memo:

State lawmakers are pushing back on a proposed change to Title IX regulations that would overhaul rules for handling sexual assault and rape on college campuses.

The proposed change by the U.S. Department of Education would narrow cases that schools would investigate and are meant to give more rights to those accused.

But lawmakers argue in a letter circulated by Queens Assemblywoman Nily Rozic that the rules changes will have a detrimental effect on the filing of justifiable complaints.

“The proposed rule changes are a stark departure from these civil rights protections and would establish new guidance that would shift the focus from protecting complainants to the rights of respondents,” the letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos states. “As such, we believe institutions would be incentivized to neglect cases of sexual assault and rape creating a significant ripple effect — campuses would be more unsafe and survivors would be less likely to come forward.”

The letter points to the colleges being required under the changes to hold live hearings that would allow the accused to be able to cross-examine the complainant, a move that likely benefits upper income students who could afford an attorney.

“Factoring in this proposed change with the new requirement that would call for higher evidentiary standards, it is clear that the emphasis in handling cases of rape and sexual assault is no longer on the survivor and their path of recourse,” the letter states.

“Moreover, the very fact that an accused could be in a position of cross-examining the victim in a live hearing setting greatly increases the likelihood of victim intimidation and will have a chilling effect on victims’ willingness to come forward, further endangering others on campus who might themselves fall prey to such offenders.”

Since first introduced in November, the proposed rules changes have drawn criticism from women’s groups as well as Democratic lawmakers, while DeVos has pointed to a system in need of balancing.

In 2015, lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to an overhaul in campus sexual assault policies that included a student bill of rights stating their ability to confidentially report crimes to authorities, including the police. Schools must also exempt a potential victim or survivor from campus drug and alcohol policies when an incident is reported.

Lawmakers Approve Child Victims Act

State lawmakers approved a bill Monday that would make it easier for the victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse to seek legal recourse and file lawsuits — a key bill that has languished in Albany for more than a decade.

And despite the long path the bill took to approval, the measure was approved in lopsided numbers in both chambers of the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

In the Senate, lawmakers approved the bill unanimously, 63-0. In the Assembly, the bill won passage 130-3. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature.

The bill includes a statute of limitations for felony cases at the age of 28 and 55 for civil cases. It also includes a one-year look back window for filing legal claims. And the bill will include public institutions as well as private entities — satisfying concerns raised by the Catholic Church and other religious institutions.

The measure has been part of a steady stream of long-sought bills that stalled under Republican control in the Senate, which flipped to a Democratic majority in November.

“No longer could critics say we were trying to target the church or yeshivas or private schools,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman. “This bill applies to everyone in every venue.”

The lawmakers who crafted the legislation credited the survivors and abuse victims who had long advocated for the bill.

“I think the survivors and the advocates who have been relentless were so brave to tell their stories of abuse,” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal.

But the bill was also the product of a delicate balancing act for supporters and lawmakers who also had to navigate the concerns of the insurance industry.

“There were many institutions who were concerned about what this could mean and it’s just really about telling peoples’ stories, educating the public and really understanding how, unfortunately, pervasive this has been,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Cuomo, who included a version of the bill in his $175 billion budget, has signaled he will sign the bill.

“Yes, there’s going to be court cases and a look back, but to me that’s all a means to an end,” Cuomo said Monday morning at a press conference with abuse survivors and advocates. “The end was do justice. Acknowledge this.””

Assembly GOP Releases Infrastructure Report

Assembly Republicans on Monday released a package of bills aimed at fixing the state’s crumbling infrastructure, including legislation that would fund upstate roads and bridges, funding for highways in New York, and expand the Clean Water Investment Act.

The bills are the end result of regional forums lawmakers conducted to assess the state of New York’s infrastructure and transportation needs.

“This report is the culmination of numerous hours of traveling, testimony, gathering research and analysis. It was a tremendous lift, but our picture of the state’s infrastructure woes is comprehensive and substantial. I am proud to have been a part of this important effort,” said Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, a Republican from Corning who co-chaired the effort.

“What we learned strongly reinforces the undeniable reality that New York’s statewide and local transportation infrastructure faces critical deficiencies that demand our attention and action. It will require continued cooperation on targeted legislation, strategic planning and, especially, investment.”

Additional measures would require parity for the Department of Transportation and MTA five-year capital programs, have the DOT release a 20 to 30-year long-term transportation plan and have the DOT submit a capital plan for approval.

“Professionals from every region of the state spoke with us about their experiences and challenges, and our commitment to uncovering the most complete picture of our state’s infrastructure issues remains unmatched. This report represents a team effort toward the singular goal of making life better for all New Yorkers – better roads and a stronger, safer transportation system leads to greater opportunities for everyone,” said Repubblican Assemblyman Kevin Byrne. “If there was ever an issue to unite legislators from both political parties, this is it. We must, and will, fight tooth-and-nail to enact wholescale reform to the way our state approaches transportation funding before it’s too late.”

Lawmakers: Expand Background Checks To Non-Public Schools

A bill introduced Friday would require new employees at private schools in New York be fingerprinted and undergo background checks by the state.

The measure, backed by Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, would expand the security checks currently in place for public schools for employees who have contact with students. Currently, fingerprinting and background checks is optional for non-public schools.

“With students spending a majority of their day in school, it is critical that their school environment be safe and supportive,” Rozic said.

“Implementing a fingerprinting procedure that is already standard practice at public schools would provide families with peace of mind, knowing that all children are safe, no matter what school they attend.”

The bill comes as the Legislature on Monday is due to vote on the Child Victims Act, a bill that is meant to make it easier for the survivors and victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits.

“Our students are tomorrow’s leaders and it is critical for us to take every step necessary to ensure their safety in the classroom,” Kaminsky said. “It is imperative that everyone who has contact with students across our State undergo a comprehensive fingerprint-based criminal background check. We owe it to our children — regardless of which school they attend — to ensure they are protected in and out of the classroom.”

Heastie: Congestion Pricing, MTA Reform Will Be A Challenge

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in a radio interview on Thursday predicted the coming negotiations over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for congestion pricing and a restructuring of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to be a challenge in the budget talks.

Cuomo included both measures in his $175 billion spending plan, which is expected to pass by the end of March.

Heastie has said he’s generally in favor of congestion pricing, but some lawmakers in his conference continue to have reservations.

“I’d say there are still some concerns from members in the city,” Heastie said in an interview on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom. “I think for them this is a big deal.”

Various proposals for congestion pricing — charge tolls for vehicle and truck traffic into parts of Manhattan — have stalled over the last decade and a half in Albany amid concerns from lawmakers primarily from boroughs outside of Manhattan.

Meanwhile, cuts in state aid to municipalities that do not overly rely on the money could also be a sticking point, Heastie said.

“I’ve heard the county execs and town supervisors that this is a problem,” he said.

He also indicate a top-line discussion was held on the AIM funding issue in a meeting with Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

“Without getting into specifics it was raised we want to have a discussion about it,” he said.

Will A Permanent Tax Cap Lead To Changes?

As Democrats in the state Senate move to make the state’s cap on property taxes permanent, the Democratic-led Assembly is biding its time, for now, on the issue.

“We will discuss it. We’ve always voted on the property tax cap in previous times. It’s the Senate. We’re both Democratic houses,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “I don’t think anyone should have any notice or concern if we pass a bill first, or they pass a bill first.”

The bill is being considered in the Senate as lawmakers in both houses approve a bill that would change how teachers evaluated by no longer linking them to state examinations — a bill that was heavily favored by the state teachers union.

The tax cap, which limits levy increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, has not been a favorite of the teachers union, while local governments have sought exceptions to the cap.

Heastie didn’t rule out negotiating some changes to the cap, but did not say which ones he would seek.

“You want to make sure you want to keep property taxes down, but you have some concern when counties say they have inabilities to do certain things,” he said. “We’re negotiating, we’ll talk about it. We’ll see how it goes.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who backs a permanent tax cap, has typically opposed broad-based changes to the measure.

Dems Will Continue To Flex Muscle

From the Morning Memo:

The first two weeks of a Democratic-controlled Legislature have largely gone as expected: The state Senate, along with the Assembly, has passed a bill after bill that up until last Election Day represented a wish list for progressives in New York.

The Legislature has approved bills that are designed to make it easier to register to vote and cast ballot, closing the LLC loophole and protections for transgender people and a ban on conversion therapy.

This week, the Legislature is expected to take up and pass bills meant to strengthen abortion laws and access to contraceptions in the state. Later on in the session, gun control measures will likely pass as well.

For now, these bills have been passing like butter through a knife.

Not everything will be this easy.

Senate Democrats this week will move make the state’s cap on property taxes permanent — a provision their governing partners in the Assembly have been skeptical of over the years. Assembly Democrats could seek some changes to the cap, which limits property tax levy hikes to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, that would make it easier to override or workaround.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not been willing to back major changes to the cap, however.

Cuomo, meanwhile, has indicated the biggest sticking point for lawmakers will be the broad-based ethics reforms he’s proposed such as lobbying law changes, calling them essential to the budget he’s submitted. He also believes congestion pricing and changing the structure of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will be difficult lifts as well.

Conflict is still a little ways off for Democrats in Albany, but not that far off.

Peoples-Stokes Ceremonially Sworn In As Majority Leader

From the Morning Memo:

Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes made history last night.

She became the first woman and the first African American to hold the position of Assembly majority leader. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie picked Peoples-Stokes late last year, but she was officially sworn in during a ceremony at True Bethel Church in Buffalo.

She said she hopes to be an inspiration to others.

“I sure hope that every little girl who is in school today and maybe being told by their guidance counselor, like I was, that I wasn’t college material, that they will pursue whatever goal it is that they desire based on what they have within themselves because they see me here,” she said. “I hope that it does motivate people to want to go higher.”

A number of Peoples-Stokes’ Assembly and state Senate colleagues from Western New York attended the event, as well as Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul – also a Buffalo native.

The LG said she was proud Heastie had picked the “very best,” adding: “(Peoples-Stokes) is the most experienced, qualified, passionate, and energetic person – who happens to be a woman, and a woman of color.”

The majority leader said that outside of supporting the speaker’s agenda, her priorities remain the same. At the top of that list is legalizing the adult use of marijuana, which the governor has came around to embracing, and included in this budget proposal.

Heastie Says He Supports Bag Ban

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters on Monday he would be supportive of a ban on plastic bags in the state, but said he would discuss the issue with his full Democratic conference.

“I’ve said before that me, personally, I’d be OK with a plastic bag ban,” he said. “As many of the things he puts in his budget, as members, we will conference them.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday announced he would include a full ban on plastic bags in his state budget as well as an expansion of the state’s bottle deposit law.

The ban has been sought by environmental groups, but several also have called for a fee on plastic bag usage as well.

Cuomo and lawmakers in 2017 backed a measure overturning New York City’s 5-cent fee on plastic bags as the governor also created a statewide task force on the issue.

“To Governor Cuomo’s credit, this budget should be a vehicle to advance innovative and bold ideas to protect our environment,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the chairman of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee said in a statement.

“The scourge of plastic pollution needs to be addressed and I look forward to getting into the details of these proposals to ensure they have maximum impact. I am proud to carry plastic bag legislation in the senate that also addresses paper bags, something I will continue to advocate for during this process.”