Good morning from Albany, NY where the Senate adjourned sine die early Saturday morning, and the Assembly followed on Saturday evening, to end the 2023 Legislative Session (with the caveat that the Assembly may be back in the “near future”).
Lawmakers reached a last-minute agreement on the Clean Slate Act. Long a priority of activists and progressive lawmakers, the bill allows criminal records to be sealed three years after release for a misdemeanor conviction and eight years for a felony conviction. The legislation exempts sex crimes and gives certain employers, such as law enforcement agencies, access to sealed records. Despite fierce opposition from Republicans in both Houses, the bill had broad support from business and labor groups. It passed the Assembly 83-64 after nearly four hours of debate, and the Senate later on Friday night by a margin of 38-25. “This legislation is not about criminal justice only. It isn’t just about public safety. It isn’t just about economic justice. It isn’t just about equity and fairness. It’s about redemption,” said Assembly Sponsor Catalina Cruz.
Legislators also passed a measure to consolidate New York’s elections. The bill would move the majority of local races to even-numbered years, bringing them in line with elections for state Senate, Assembly, statewide office, Congress, and President. The bill’s sponsor, Senator James Skoufis offered, “As it stands right now, in a lot of these local, town, and county elections, you have 20 or so percent of voters deciding the outcome for the entire jurisdiction, why are you so afraid of 50, 60, 70 percent of voters determining who should hold these local positions?” The changes would not apply to elections for district attorneys, judges, and other positions with a term set forth in the State Constitution though Skoufis promised to introduce a Constitutional amendment next year to begin the process of consolidating those offices, as well.
Supporters of the measure cite increased voter turnout for local level races as well as potential savings in holding elections as primary motivation. Republicans and some local elected officials (and, behind closed doors, some Democrats) have argued the consolidation will drown out lower-level candidates, who will now be competing for airtime and voter bandwidth with national and statewide campaigns. There is also widespread agreement that increased turnout will benefit Democrats since the party regularly sees significantly higher turnout driven by those national campaigns.
Governor Hochul expressed tentative support for the measure, citing the benefit of increased voter turnout, but did not go as far as to endorse the proposal.
The Senate and Assembly also approved a bill to make universal no-excuse mail-in voting permanent after the temporary system expired with the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of 2022, and voters rejected an amendment to the State’s Constitution to allow universal no-excuse, mail-in voting in 2021. The State Constitution limits voting by mail to instances where a voter is ill, disabled, or traveling outside the country or residence, but Senate Sponsor and Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris argues that is limited to Election Day itself, not early voting by mail. “I don’t think the constitution limits early voting by mail. It expressly says the method of voting is up to the Legislature to decide,” Gianaris said.
Also advanced in the last days of session was a bill authorizing the creation of a commission to study the history of slavery in New York and recommend possible reparation payments. The commission, modeled after California’s first-in-the-nation reparations committee, would consist of nine members with the Governor, Senate Majority Leader, and Assembly Speaker each appointing three members. While the commission’s recommendations will not be binding and any action would ultimately have to be approved by the Legislature, the bill’s sponsors have indicated they see this as an important first step. Assembly Member Michaelle Solages said, “This is about beginning the process of healing our communities. There still is generational trauma that people are experiencing. This is just one step forward.”
The Legislature approved bills to make both Diwali and Lunar New Year school holidays pending Governor Hochul’s approval as well as a new version of the Grieving Families Act which would expand liability under the state’s wrongful death law. A version of the bill passed both Houses last year before being vetoed by Governor Hochul however, advocates are hoping the new version addresses the concerns raised by the Governor and will be signed into law. Finally, the Legislature went ahead with a series of changes to the state’s public campaign financing laws, making the first $250 of large donations eligible for public matching funds. Before the changes, only donations between $5-$250 were eligible for public financing in the hopes that supplementing smaller level donations would promote more robust challenges to well-funded incumbents.
Of course, a lot did not get done, starting with housing. After lawmakers failed to include the governor’s ambitious 800,000-unit housing proposal in the state budget, there was hope that the two sides could come to an agreement on increased tenant protections and a renewed tax incentive for housing developers in the final weeks of session. However, a proposal never came to fruition and the end result was a lot of finger pointing. In a joint press release, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie indicated their members were on board with the plan, but the Governor is not, saying, “Unfortunately, it was clear that we could not come to an agreement with the governor on this plan.” Governor Hochul’s office firmly pushed back on the notion that she was the reason for any housing package failing saying, “To be clear: Unlike the more than 500 bills the Legislature has passed since January, no housing package was ever even introduced, let alone passed, for the governor’s review. Absolutely nothing stood in the Legislature’s way.”
Housing is sure to be a major focus of the next legislative session but New York’s economic outlook could hamper any major policy initiatives. A report released last week by the state Department of Budget projects a $9 billion deficit for the next fiscal year with it increasing it $14 billion the following fiscal year. The increased deficit is largely due to a dreary tax forecast in the coming years spurred by inflation as well as businesses and individuals relocating elsewhere.
Notably, the Senate also declined to confirm Justin Driscoll, the Governor’s nominee to head the New York Power Authority—a role that the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and increasingly aggressive State energy policy has made significantly more visible in recent years. This is the second high profile nominee that has failed to be confirmed this year, after Court of Appeals nominee Hector LaSalle was voted down in February. A slew of progressive groups opposed Driscoll for his ties to the fossil fuel industry. “Following a national search last year, Gov. Hochul recommended Justin Driscoll for president and CEO of the New York Power Authority because he has the expertise to lead the nation’s largest state-owned utility, helping New York to achieve its ambitious climate goals using both NYPA’s existing authorities and its expanded mandate,” Hochul’s Office said in a statement.
Speaking of nothing getting done, hardliners in the House GOP are holding up a number of bills in Washington D.C. in retaliation for Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s handling of the debt ceiling. The logjam began on Tuesday, with 11 members of the GOP Freedom Caucus voting against a rule to allow a series of bills to come to the House floor for a vote. Rules votes are procedural and almost always split down party lines— the last time a rule from the majority party was voted down was in 2002. Rep. Dan Bishop, a Freedom Caucus member, offered “There’s no decision over a motion to vacate the chair. There’s no decision about rules votes, but the problem that has been precipitated entirely by the speaker’s approach to the debt ceiling package is going to have to be dealt with.” On his way out of the Capitol for the weekend, Speaker McCarthy told reporters “I think we’re making a lot of progress” but whether the stalemate continues for another week will not be clear until 4pm today when the House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet again.
The biggest election news nationally was a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down Alabama’s Congressional maps on the basis that the districts unconstitutionally dilute the influence of Black voters in the state. Conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts joined the liberals in the 5-4 opinion which calls for the creation of an additional black majority district in Alabama, which currently has just one despite having a 27% Black population. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, saying “A district is not equally open, in other words, when minority voters face – unlike their majority peers – bloc voting along racial lines, arising against the backdrop of substantial racial discrimination within the State, that renders a minority vote unequal to a vote by a non-minority voter.” The case could have implications for other election-related lawsuits, especially those questioning the validity of district boundaries and racial gerrymandering.
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New to the NYS Legislature
Assembly Member Anil Beephan, Jr. represents the Dutchess County-based 105th Assembly District that includes the towns of Amenia, Beekman, Dover, East Fishkill, Fishkill, LaGrange, Pawling, Union Vale, and Wappinger.
Assembly Member Beephan received a B.A. in political science from Arcadia University in 2016 and a Master of Liberal Arts in management from Harvard University in 2019 before serving in a variety of roles for Senator Sue Serino.
Assembly Member Beephan has experience in the private sector in the fields of public relations and marketing and has served as a councilman in the Town of East Fishkill. He currently resides in East Fishkill where he is a volunteer firefighter and a private pilot.
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