What should Albany get done right away?

New York Democratic leaders have signalled that they are willing to consider changes in the new bail reform bill.
New York Democratic leaders have signalled that they are willing to consider changes in the new bail reform bill.
LM Photos/Shutterstock
New York Democratic leaders have signalled that they are willing to consider changes in the new bail reform bill.

What should Albany get done right away?

Activists and lawmakers are looking for quick action on these six issues.
January 7, 2020

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is unveiling his 2020 legislative priorities at his State of the State address on Wednesday, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins will also signal this week what they want to work on in the second year after Democrats took full control of the state Legislature following the 2018 elections. That session began with a boom as Democrats passed one progressive measure after another. 

This time around, lawmakers will pick up where they left off at the end of a big year in Albany. Some issues, like legalizing recreational marijuana, may take time. Others – like Cuomo’s proposal to designate domestic terrorism as a state crime – could advance more quickly. At the same time, Cuomo, lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum have their own ideas for what should get done as early as possible in the new legislative session. 

Here are six issues on which lawmakers, activists or Cuomo have called for quick action. 

Reforming bail reform

Moderate Democratic lawmakers and their Republican colleagues have been criticizing criminal justice reforms ever since they passed in the state budget in April 1. Their efforts have gained traction in the court of public opinion as prosecutors began implementing the new changes to the state bail laws. Cuomo and Stewart-Cousins have signalled that they are willing to consider changes. While the chances are very low for any sweeping changes, especially in the first week, lawmakers could conceivably add to the list of criminal charges in which cash bail can be imposed. Otherwise, the media storm might only get worse as more criminal defendants get arrested shortly after being released pre-trial. 

Confronting anti-Semitism

If state lawmakers don’t give judges more discretion to require bail for people accused of hate crimes, they could still address the issue in another way. Cuomo proposed a policy change in response to the stabbing of five people at a Dec. 28 Hanukkah celebration in Rockland County. A suspect is currently facing five counts of attempted murder and one count of first degree burglary, but domestic terrorism is currently not a crime under state law – an idea that Cuomo began pushing for in August. “I'm proposing a new law that I want them to pass in January,” Cuomo said on Jan. 1. “When you attack people, and you're trying to hurt or murder a large number of people because of their race or their religion, that is terrorism.”

Limiting solitary confinement

More than 135 progressive groups demanded in October that the state Legislature pass a bill on the first day of the session that would limit solitary confinement to 15 days in local jails and state prisons. The proposal has strong support among Democrats in both houses of the Legislature, but Cuomo ultimately got Heastie and Stewart Cousins to go along with his own alternative to institute new limits on solitary confinement through administrative means. The speed and seriousness with which Democrats pursue passage of the legislation will test early on how eager they are to pass additional criminal justice reforms despite recent controversies

Campaign finance redo

Some lawmakers and plenty of activists did not like the system for publicly-financed elections that was created late last year by an appointed commission. These critics could not convince Heastie or Stewart Cousins to summon their members to Albany last month to block the commission’s plans from becoming law. The start of the legislative session will give lawmakers their first chance to address the controversial changes made by the commission. Many progressives want lower thresholds for third-party ballot access, as do some conservatives. Some Democratic lawmakers are also pushing for lower limits on campaign contributions. Considering that Democrats used the budget process to punt the issue to a commission suggests that Democrats will take their time once again – if they act all. If progressives make a push at the beginning of session for a public financing system that better meets their expectations then it would suggest they also have an appetite for intra-party strife over other policy issues this year.

Passing a key voting reform (again)

Democrats were on the verge of legalizing automatic voter registration last year – until a drafting error doomed the bill. The idea had been to allow New Yorkers to register to vote while filing other paperwork with the state. The bill would have required language on state forms warning noncitizens that registering to vote was a crime, but a typo would have given them the wrong instructions. Republicans called attention to the error and Democrats pulled the bill in the final days of the session. Activists now want them to get it done, and it appears that lawmakers are listening.

Limo safety

Democrats in both chambers were unable to coordinate much of a legislative response to the deadliest transportation-related crash in the U.S. in nearly a decade, which occurred when a limo crash killed 20 people outside Schoharie in October 2018. Cuomo pushed some changes to limo safety through the budget process, but Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly said they had it from there, though they ultimately did not address the issue in time. As a result, victims’ families have had to wait for another legislative session to secure additional safety rules, like defining what a stretch limousine is and requiring passengers to wear seatbelts. 

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.