Albany, of all places, has provided a glimpse of what can happen when politicians feel they owe the voters rather than the donors.
In November, Democrats won full control of the State Legislature by making some big promises. They’ve largely kept those promises, a heartening demonstration of public service that makes for a sharp contrast with Congress.
While the process was far from what it should be in a healthy democratic institution — too many decisions were rushed through late at night — deals were not made as they have been in the past, in secret by the governor and leaders of the State Senate and Assembly. This year, those leaders — Gov. Andrew Cuomo; the Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins; and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — deserve significant credit. So too do a group of newly elected Democrats who rejected donations from the real estate industry and other powerful interests and brought fresh energy and independence to the capital.
Together these politicians strengthened rent laws and abortion rights, enacted criminal justice reforms and aggressive climate change protections, and more. Here’s some of what New York’s leaders accomplished since January.
Rent laws. Stunning the long-dominant real estate industry, lawmakers eliminated landlords’ ability to remove apartments from the rent stabilization system and put them on the open market. This measure, ending what’s known as vacancy decontrol, along with others passed, can help keep nearly one million apartments more affordable in New York City.
Congestion pricing. In a plan that once seemed too contentious to win passage, motorists entering Manhattan’s busiest streets will be charged a fee, providing the subways with as much as $1 billion in desperately need revenue.
Abortion rights. The state’s abortion law was updated, formally protecting the right to abortion in case Roe v. Wade is overturned and allowing a woman to get an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy if her health is at stake or a fetus isn’t viable. The new law, known as the Reproductive Health Act, also allows nurse practitioners, physician assistants and midwives to perform nonsurgical abortions, easing access.
Criminal justice. Defendants will no longer be assessed bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and prosecutors will need to disclose evidence in cases far earlier. The changes were a result of years of charges that the criminal justice system is too punitive, and disproportionately harms black and Latino communities.
Climate change. The state pledged to almost entirely phase out its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, making New York a world leader in the fight against climate change. Retail stores will no longer be able to give out most types of single-use plastic bags.
Protections for immigrants. Undocumented immigrants can now apply for college financial aid and scholarships and obtain driver’s licenses. The latter is a common-sense measure in an economy dependent on undocumented labor and one that many police officials said would improve safety, by letting them know who is on the roads.
Stronger sexual harassment laws. Victims will be able to get justice more easily by no longer having to show the harassment was “severe or pervasive.” After months of lobbying by former Albany staff members, state employees were also given more time to file complaints.
L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Murder defendants will no longer be able to claim the disgusting “gay panic” defense — that they were made temporarily insane by discovering that their victim was gay, lesbian or transgender. Those who want to repress young gay and lesbian people will no longer be able to provide conversion therapy, unfounded in science, for minors. The state’s hate crime law was expanded to cover transgender New Yorkers.
Labor protections for farm workers. Farm workers will be entitled to overtime pay and the right to unionize.
Voting reforms. It will be significantly easier to vote in New York, thanks to the enactment of early voting, and 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to preregister to vote.
Child Victims Act. Legislation that gained an unusual level of bipartisan support will make it significantly easier to prosecute claims of child sex abuse. The law allows prosecutors to bring sex abuse charges until a victim is 28 years old and allows victims to sue over sexual abuse they endured as children until they reach the age of 55. The bill had been fiercely opposed for years by New York’s Catholic Conference, the Boy Scouts of America and the insurance industry.
Stronger gun control laws. The waiting period for gun buyers who do not instantly clear a background check was lengthened, and a so-called red flag law will allow school officials, law enforcement and family members to ask a judge to temporarily bar someone who may be dangerous from buying or owning a gun.
Ethics reforms. Legislators ended the practice of exempting businesses known as limited liability companies — often shell companies — from limits on corporate campaign finance.
Marijuana decriminalization. Lawmakers did not legalize recreational marijuana for adults but lessened the penalty for possession of up to two ounces of the drug to a violation. Fines will be $50 for those with under one ounce of marijuana, and $200 for those between one and two ounces of marijuana.
Encouraging vaccine use. Faced with the largest measles outbreak in the state in years, legislators ended parents’ ability to exempt their children from vaccination on religious grounds.
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