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For Albany Democrats, a rush to pass laws long blocked by GOP

ALBANY – There’s a look on the faces of Democrats at the state Capitol these days.

It’s practically a glow.

After three straight weeks of pushing through one major piece of legislation after another – during the traditionally ho-hum beginnings of a new session – Democratic lawmakers are enjoying the roll they’ve been on. And they say it will continue in the months ahead.

To the delight of the party’s left-leaning base in one of America’s bluest of states, Democrats, thrust into control of both legislative chambers, have pushed through new measures on abortion rights, gun control, aid for undocumented immigrants, new contraceptive coverage mandates, expanded voting opportunities and bans on discriminatory acts against transgender New Yorkers.

Add in new legal rights for adults who were sexually abused as a child and January 2019 will be described in the history of the state Legislature by one word: sweeping.

"It’s sort of like your fondest dream coming true as far as being a legislator," said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat now in her seventh term representing parts of the west side of Manhattan. "It’s sort of overwhelming."

Rosenthal recalled the years that Democrats would pass legislation in the Assembly, only to have it fail in the Republican-controlled Senate.

That was the way of Albany for decades. On things they could agree on, Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans would act. But on hundreds of issues large and small, there were the one-housers: bills each house would pass knowing the other house would never touch.

It would mean long hours of debate, utterly symbolic, on bills certain to die. Or that the ideas of rank-and-file legislators would simply fade in a what’s-the-point sense of reality.

No longer, if January is any indicator. With Republicans having lost Senate control in the November elections, Democrats have wasted zero time trying to fulfill promises.

The focus in the first three weeks was on 18 bills and two constitutional amendment resolutions – dubbed the marquee measures by many lawmakers. Going forward, lawmakers will start paying more attention to the budget, as its March 31 deadline approaches. There is already much to focus on, given the many fiscal and policy differences separating the Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

A new Albany?

With 39 lawmakers in the Senate Democratic conference and 107 Assembly Democrats, there’s much in the way of wants and needs.

In the Senate, Democrats are feeling what it is like to have real power. In the Assembly, Democrats are relieved to finally have same-party partners in the Senate.

The wish list is long.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes attends the State of the State at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany in 2016. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Democrats like Assemblyman Sean Ryan from Buffalo are pushing for a bill, killed in the Senate over the years, to expand treatment for children exposed to lead paint, expand renters insurance to include lead paint remediation and require daycare facilities to be tested for lead.

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat, last week talked about renewed hope to get a tracking system that would require the governor’s administration to publicly post detailed information about economic development awards.

Another Erie County Democrat, Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, has reintroduced her bill to require internet service providers to obtain the written consent of customers before disclosing personally identifiable information. It passed the Assembly last year but was bottled up in a Senate committee.

In the Senate, Sen. Tim Kennedy has already advanced a bill to put speed cameras in school zones, a measure that died year after year in the Senate. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who has the bill in the Assembly, predicted its passage this year.

Rank-and-file rush

If the budget is adopted by April 1, lawmakers say the final three months of session will be heavily skewed to bills that are priorities for individual legislators. “You will see an avalanche of those types of bills that are small in scope but important to local districts," said Rosenthal, the Manhattan Democrat.

For her part, she has a series of animal welfare measures, including creation of a criminal database for animal cruelty convictions and another to ban declawing of cats. She has a series of environmental bills that were blocked in the past by Republicans in the Senate. And she has bills likely to target the cigarette and vaping industries.

"I bet every single legislator has bills or ideas they knew would never go through," she said.

Until now.

The Legislature’s majority in both houses is dominated by downstate Democrats. At 39 members, the Senate Democratic conference has a very healthy margin of control in the 63-member house. In the Assembly, 71 percent of the 150 members are Democrats.

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Crespo, who is also the Bronx Democratic Party chairman and a close ally of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, another Bronx Democrat, said he is pleased some of the major, time-consuming bills are getting done now.

"The fact that we’re getting these out of the way leaves us with a lot more room the rest of the session to go back to some of those other things that are just as important," he said.

A host of other Democratic-leaning efforts are underway, from making the criminal bail system more defendant-friendly to letting undocumented immigrants get drivers licenses.

There are also bills not getting many headlines, but Democrats are pushing them. They include everything from letting someone who marries more easily change their last name to their middle name; requiring instruction in driver’s education coursework on what to do when stopped by the police; and strengthening state laws to ban oil and gas drilling along Atlantic coastal areas. There are bills being pushed to ban the use of pesticides at camps; bolster tenant rights in eviction cases; strengthen laws on sexual harassment; and prohibit publicly owned treatment facilities from accepting wastewater used in out-of-state gas fracking operations.

"It’s an exciting time," said Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.

Democrats press agenda

Kennedy pointed to several of his bills that were blocked by the GOP that he will be pressing for final passage. They include requiring call centers that get state tax breaks to return the money if they move out of state; giving veterans public college credits for applicable course training they received in the military; and increasing penalties on banks that fail to maintain properties they own through foreclosures.

New York State Senator Tim Kennedy takes notes at his desk in the Senate chamber. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Peoples-Stokes will also have new momentum to get another long-sought prize: requiring Buffalo school board elections to occur on the state’s general election day in November. Holding the school vote separately, she said, depresses voter turnout.

In her new job as majority leader, it is Peoples-Stokes’ task, among others, to feel the pulse of the 107-member Democratic conference. "Folks are felling pretty good. There’s an opportunity to get things done that we didn’t have the opportunity to do in past years," she said.

There will be limitations, of course. Consider that there have been, just in the first month, 6,679 bills introduced in the two houses. Of those, 1,828 are "same-as" bills, meaning the exact same bill has been put forward in both houses, according to legislative bill tracking system.

Cuomo, in his eight years in office, signed into law an average of 545 bills each year.

Still, Democrats in the Senate have not been shy about jabbing at Republicans about their loss of power. Moments before the Senate passed the immigration Dream Act earlier this month, Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, stood on the chamber’s floor to address his colleagues. Rivera stated the obvious, though it seemed to carry an explanation point in this new Albany.

"It makes a difference to be in the majority, ladies and gentlemen," Rivera said.

A little bit here, little bit there and a $3 billion budget hole appears

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