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Opioids and oysters, animal grooming and whistleblowers: Your Legislature at work

ALBANY — Marijuana legalization, rent control, religious exemptions for vaccines, driver's licenses for migrants in the country illegally, climate control steps, strengthening sexual harassment laws.

On and on goes the attention-grabbing list of items that top government officials at the state Capitol want to talk about and are the go-to subjects for reporters covering the blur that is the end of a legislative session in Albany.

But, out in open display in the two legislative houses, work on other bills affecting people across the state is getting done each day.

Final passage has been given to a bill reducing the paperwork burdens of farmers. Another will give libraries in economically distressed areas an easier path to getting government bonds to help fund construction efforts.

On Tuesday, a sweeping deal came together in the Legislature on new rent and eviction protections for tenants around the state.

Earlier that day, with no fanfare, the Senate gave final passage to a bill that would allow a victim of domestic violence to make a police report in another jurisdiction. It would cover victims who have to flee their abusers and don’t want to return to the same city or town where the abuser might be in order to file a domestic incident report with law enforcement.

“This bill was conceived by a domestic violence survivor who had to leave her community suddenly in order to escape her abuser. She was required to return to the community in order to file a police report and domestic violence incident report, but this caused her great fear and anxiety," said Joan Gerhardt, director of public policy and advocacy at the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

About 400 bills have been given final passage by both houses this session and have either been sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his consideration or will be later this year. That number will grow considerably as lawmakers enter the whirl of the final week of the 2019 session.

Many of these bills were passed with little or no floor discussion. They are important to one segment of society, or perhaps even just one village. A bill was passed to let the Tonawanda City School District create an insurance reserve fund to help deal with expenses associated with claims that can vary from year to year.

Concerned that boards of corporations based in New York State are too male-dominated, the Senate passed a bill, with a companion measure pending in the Assembly, to undertake a state study on the gender composition of corporate boards. There is an ongoing effort to expand who can solemnize a marriage through the creation of a special one-day “marriage officiant” designation.

Whistleblowers will have new legal rights under a bill both houses have passed as of last week. Such individuals who expose wrongdoing in government and other settings, under a bill stalled in Albany since 2014, would no longer be barred from bringing legal actions if they also bring a whistleblower claim. A person bringing a whistleblower case is now required to give up other legal rights, such as being able to file a breach of employment contract case against an employer.

“As chairman of the Senate’s investigations committee, I see first-hand the need for whistleblower tips when it comes to improving and opening up government,’’ said Senator James Skoufis, an Orange County Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

“Current law discourages whistleblower claims through a contradictory provision that prevents them from asserting any other claims. This inherently diminishes their rights in comparison to other citizens and is a fundamental flaw in state law that my legislation seeks to correct,’’ Skoufis added.

And there is more. Much more.

From opioids to oysters

The Legislature last week passed a bill requiring that opioid overdose deaths be recorded on death certificates with the specific kind of opioid that a person was using. “By recording this information on death certificates, more data will be available to better track which opioids are causing the most deaths," the legislative sponsors wrote in a memo of support for their bill.

Lawmakers also approved legislation in which New York State will honor the suspensions and revocations issued by other states against people who violate fishing, hunting and trapping laws. Thirty states now participate in the compact to honor such actions against violators.

Some bills will have limited effects. Lawmakers last week changed New York State History Month from November to October; sponsors said too many historic sites are closed by November each year.

Pharmacists will be required to make “reasonable attempts” to reach patients when drug stores learn of a recall involving a prescription drug.

Also, an annual round of bills was passed extending the state’s authority to regulate bluefish, clams, oysters and other fish and seafood that make up Long Island’s commercial fishing industry.

The Senate last week gave final passage to a measure adding four upstate transit agencies — including the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority — to the list of transit entities that must submit impasses with workers over collective bargaining issues to a binding arbitration process.

Unsettled matters

The rush is on for lawmakers to try to convince colleagues to act on their ideas before the Legislature breaks until January. The Assembly on Thursday night approved a bill to help renters by ending the exclusion of insurance coverage for losses or damages caused by lead paint exposure. It has been stuck in the Senate insurance committee since April.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Democrat from Buffalo, which has a longstanding lead paint problem in its housing stock, said it makes no sense that insurance covers someone falling down in a rental unit but not getting lead paint poisoning.

“It’s a true public health crisis and this bill will ensure insurance companies, not taxpayers, will pay for injuries caused by the negligence of landlords," Ryan said.

In the past week or more, dozens of bills have been introduced or amended to try to draw supporters. One bill would ban police from using aerial drones from monitoring or recording demonstrations.

"The use of drones will only further intensify the intimidation of the public and erode protected first amendment speech,'' Senator Jessica Ramos, a Brooklyn Democrat, wrote in her bill memo on the legislation’s need. Introduced Tuesday, the bill has gotten much support on social media, but no one, as of Friday, had picked it up in the Assembly.

Another new, late entry: a bill to legalize prostitution.

It would appear quite dead.

“I have not heard a persuasive case on it,’’ Cuomo said Friday, adding that the matter “will be a discussion for another day.”

From breastfeeding to animal grooming

The state Legislature is nothing if not sweeping in its reach across various sectors of society.

In the final weeks of session, lawmakers have given final OK to a bill making a legal excuse from jury duty for women who are breastfeeding. They also passed a bill requiring animals kept by pet dealers be properly groomed, have their cages regularly cleaned, give additional space to pregnant and nursing dogs and ensure animals be exposed to “regular diurnal light cycles.’’

“This legislation will afford much-needed protections to improve the quality of life of these animals and will prevent negligent treatment by pet dealers," the bill’s sponsor wrote.

Another bill getting approved bans bumper pads — shown to present a risk of death or serious injuries to infants — from baby cribs.

Lawmakers spent hours on big-ticket, headline-grabbing bills last week. Floor debate in the Assembly, for instance, lasted three hours apiece on a bill to let migrants in the country illegally to apply for driver's licenses and to end the religious exemption used by some parents to avoid vaccines for their children.

Meanwhile, other issues were moving. In the Assembly, a measure long-stalled was passing, moving Buffalo school board elections from May to November on the same day as the general elections; the turnout-boosting effort by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Tim Kennedy, both Buffalo Democrats, is pending in the Senate education committee.

Another bill that last week passed the Assembly and is now up to the Senate: regulating what companies can do with the recordings of people who use voice recognition software on their electronic devices. It requires certain consumer disclosures and bans companies from using any recordings it might have access to for advertising purposes.

Other bills getting final approval in the past two weeks: requiring hospitals to offer patients plant-based food options for every meal or snack, doubling to 30 the number of days in a year when senior citizen groups can offer bingo games and to expand an existing program for veterans who dropped out of high school to serve in the military after the Vietnam War to be awarded high school diplomas “based on knowledge and experience gained while in service.’’

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