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Assembly will return to Albany next week, but major items are finished for the year

Gov. Kathy Hochul is hoping to reach a housing package agreement after it fell short in the 2023 session.
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Gov. Kathy Hochul is hoping to reach a housing package agreement after it fell short in the 2023 session.

Lawmakers have left the New York state capitol in Albany, for now, after a sometimes rocky legislative session. The first session since Governor Kathy Hochul’s election to a full-term last year included a record-setting budget and further criminal justice changes. But it also included fierce disagreement over Hochul’s first choice for chief judge and her housing program. Public radio’s “Capitol Pressroom” host Dave Lombardo spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus.

Let's start with the fact that lawmakers might be coming back soon. What are the details?

Well, simply because the assembly is such a large, unwieldy body, it takes them longer to pass legislation than their colleagues in the State Senate. And we saw that dynamic at play at the end of the legislative session as they stretched a couple of days past the scheduled end, and basically ran out of votes to pass some measures that are things that passed the Senate, such as approval for a gaming compact with the Seneca Indian Nation, legislation dealing with home foreclosures, and even something that has to do with wrongful convictions and how they're handled in the future. Essentially, Assembly Democrats left the chamber and left the leadership with a real tough issue, which was they didn't have the votes to pass some of these things. So, it appears they're going to try to assemble all of these people in the near future and pass some of these outstanding measures. It's not really a question of whether they have the votes, but whether they have all the votes in one place this summer.

Now, this would be separate and a different thing from the special session we saw at the end of last year, to take up a different topic. This was just unfinished business?

Exactly. It's them finally catching up on their homework.

So, from your view, what were the big things that did get done this year? I know a lot of attention was on the late budget, but we still did have several weeks of session after that.

Yeah, I think you can break the end of session legislation into two pots. One pot is the things that actual New Yorkers are probably going to hear about and care about. And those two pieces of legislation are referred to as the so-called Clean Slate legislation, which has to do with sealing criminal records for New Yorkers, anywhere from three to eight years after they've finished up their time behind bars and finished up any sentence that they had relating to a criminal conviction. And this is something that's designed to ensure that people, once they've served their time, have an ability to move past that criminal offense and can apply for a job without it hanging over their head and apply for housing without it hanging over their head. There are some caveats to this, which is that in certain professions like if it requires a fingerprinting, the employer will have the ability to look into those criminal convictions. There's a feeling that in certain professions, this information needs to be known. So, this is one big measure that people are going to hear about and care about.

The other has to do with potentially changing when certain local elections are held. Most people know that presidential elections and elections for congress are held on even years, but most municipal elections are held on odd years, and they see a dramatic decrease in turnout. So, legislation that made its way through the Capitol would change the election time for certain municipal elections, any municipal elections that aren't all essentially prescribed in the state constitution, and that includes city elections and elections for district attorneys. But certain town elections and county wide elections like for county executives, those are able to be changed by state law. And that's exactly what state lawmakers in the Capitol did. This is designed, at least according to the Democrats, to drive up turnout. Critics of the legislation, and these are mostly Republicans, argue this is being done to drive up Democratic turnout since Democrats are more likely to turn out in even year elections. And so, there is a bit of a cynical nature to this if you talk with Republicans.

So that's the one pot of issues that are really affecting New Yorkers and I think New Yorkers are going to care about. The issue that a lot of Albany insiders and politicos are focused on has to do with reforms to the state's nascent public financing of elections. Essentially, the state in 2020 greenlit a program of matching small dollar contributions with state money and essentially amplifying them up to I think seven or eight times what was initially given up to $250. The reforms that were pushed through by the state legislature and would need to be signed into law by the governor would allow for donations above $250 to be matched still, only the first $250 would be met. Next, but now you could give us a $5,000. And the first $250 can be amplified. The legislature also raised the barrier to qualifying for this program, which is seen as kind of an incumbent protection system to make it harder for challengers to actually qualify for this important financing. So those are really the big two pots of issues that I've focused on from this session.

Let's go back to the question of local elections. Number one, do we know if Governor Hochul is inclined to sign that?

Governor Hochul likes to play these issues of whether she's going to sign bills pretty close to the vest, unless it's something that she's championed. So, it's possible that the governor might not sign this she might feel pressure from local elected to not sign it. But I think at the end of the day, this is an issue that was championed by Democrats, Kathy Hoko, is a Democrat. And this is a priority for the Democratic Party. So, I think she will sign this legislation. It's possible there could be what are called chapter amendments to the legislation tweaks to the implementation of the changes, which are set right now to take effect in 2026. The other companion to this which the legislature has not moved is the idea of a constitutional amendment, which would ensure that all municipal elections, whether it's district attorney's or whether it's elections and cities, would also be moved. But like I said, that's something that would require amending the constitution and could take some additional time.

Let's move on to housing. This is an area where the legislative leaders and the governor were trading barbs in the last few days of the session. People may remember Governor Hochul’s plan to add 800,000 units around the state fell out of the state budget talks earlier in the session. So where did this leave off?

Essentially in the same spot where it ended in the state budget process, which is nowhere. We got a reminder multiple times in this session, that if you wanted to do something significant on housing creation, and you don't have some sort of deadline prompting action, it's hard to build a consensus on the issue of housing and particularly here, we had a tough time building a consensus of suburban lawmakers who really did not like the governor's proposal to basically interfere with local zoning and planning board decisions if municipalities failed to hit local housing growth goals. And then you had more conservative and more moderate members, including the governor who were uncomfortable with what the liberals wanted to advance on the housing side of things, which was a housing access voucher program, essentially a state subsidized low-income housing program, as well as what's called Good Cause Eviction, which would have the effect of capping rent growth to a certain percentage each year. So, it was trying to find something that hit that sweet spot of appealing to everyone, which was impossible in both the budget process. And in the final days of session complicating this is the fact that the legislature is blaming the governor for not coming to the table on this, the governor is blaming the legislature for you know, not exercising their own legislative prerogative to pass bills amongst themselves. A lot of finger-pointing all adding up to nothing on the housing creation side in the legislative session.

Let's talk now about Clean Slate and the status of criminal justice reforms in Albany. Earlier in this session the legislature agreed to some bail reform tweaks to give judges more discretion. And then late in the session the Clean Slate as you mentioned is passed. Is criminal justice bail reform now off the table for next year's session, or do you think this is a topic that will come up again when lawmakers are back?

The short answer, Ian is that this is a topic that will come up again next year, in large part because both liberals and conservatives are unsatisfied with what is actually happening here in Albany on the left side of the spectrum, there's an argument to be made that not enough has been done in the criminal justice space. They view Clean Slate as almost low hanging fruit, something that's passed the state senate multiple times in the past, and is traditionally thought to have had the votes to have been adopted years ago. And so, they would have liked to see legislators move well beyond the issue of Clean Slate and take up things that would allow for New Yorkers who are behind bars to access parole much earlier. And then on the other side of the spectrum, when you talk with conservatives, whether it's conservative Democrats or Republicans, there's an idea that what was done in the budget on bail doesn't go far enough to ensuring public safety and there's already going to be a push to rollback Clean Slate before it even gets implemented. So, I think it remains to be seen what the dialogue is that dominates in Albany next year. Will Governor vocal given to the right and the idea that we need to toughen up public safety? Will she listened to the voices on her left and try to push it through more liberalization of our criminal justice laws? Either way, this is going to be allowed discussion at the capitol in 2024.

Let's wrap up by talking about the climate. What did the legislature do or not do before leaving town on that thorny issue?

Again, this is another case where it's what they did not do. Environmentalists were very hopeful that the legislature would move on a couple big climate bills. One has to do with capping what low-income New Yorkers pay for their utility fees, and also legislation that would basically disincentivize the future hookup of natural gas to new construction prior to some legislation that will take effect and limit new construction and natural gas hookups. The other big piece has to do with waste. There has been talk for a couple years now about this proposal of extended producer responsibility, basically making manufacturers responsible for the waste they put out into the world making them responsible for trying to figure out how to recycle and shoulder the cost of recycling. This is something on the packaging side that environmentalists and Senate Democrats were hopeful they could achieve a consensus on this didn't even get a vote in either house of the chamber and I think it's seen as a big failure on the environmental side amongst the liberals here at the Capitol.

So just zooming out a little bit, how do you think each respective party did this year? Governor Hochul obviously suffered the defeat of her choice of Hector LaSalle earlier in the session for Chief Judge. The housing plan, as we mentioned, didn't get through. How do things stand today, as we speak in June, between Speaker Heastie, the Senate leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and the governor?

So, I would say things ended on a bit of a frosty note. In addition to the failures on housing, the State Senate also chose not to take up the governor's nominee to lead the New York Power Authority, this man named Justin Driscoll has been serving in an acting capacity and is basically hated by the left in New York. So, there is definitely a frosty relationship right now as the legislative session ends. Whether there is going to be a hangover for this into 2024, I don't think so I think at the end of the day, these are adults who want to work together who want to get things done. I think there is now a new precedent when it comes to how the Senate handles nominees, but in terms of the legislative process, I think these are people who are willing to work together in 2024. I think the bigger challenge in 2024 is that it's an election year, and lawmakers including the governor may be skittish to take on any big issues that could be seen as controversial in November.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.