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Deals come together, fall apart at end of Legislature session

ALBANY — State lawmakers, amid a swirl of more than 400 pieces of legislation approved in the last several days, rushed Thursday night to end their 2019 session with new deals on farmworker rights, workplace sexual harassment protections and the death of a measure that would have driven up the costs of upstate economic development projects.

Advancing in both houses was a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession — a day after full-blown legalization efforts died.

Dying Thursday was a controversial plan by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to impose higher wage rates for construction workers on private projects funded with government money. Upstate developers and business groups said it would have depressed historic rehabilitation and new commercial and affordable housing projects.

Cuomo had sought to make the law apply everywhere but New York City, which outraged upstate business groups.

Late Thursday, a much-anticipated, omnibus bill emerged that promises all kinds of spending, including:

  • $20 million for the first year of a five-year, $100 million light rail improvement plan for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and $100 million for Lake Ontario shoreline improvements.
  • Funding for everything from libraries to downstate transit, along with $385 million unspecified future pork barrel spending — a program known in Albany as SAM — and $75 million for the governor to use as he sees fit for economic development.

Lawmakers will boast about the spending, which traditionally would have been a part of budget talks last March, but they readily acknowledge the governor controls the state bank so he will decide when and if the money gets expended.

On Thursday morning, another issue promoted by Cuomo died: a plan to permit paid surrogacy arrangements. Its demise was announced by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, as Cuomo was on a radio show talking about end-of-session priorities. Many women and activist groups raised concerns that women, especially low-income individuals, could be exploited by a system allowing payments to carry someone's child.

"We must ensure that the health and welfare of women who enter into these arrangements are protected, and that reproductive surrogacy does not become commercialized. This requires careful thought,'' Heastie said.

The Democratic-led State Legislature recently approved legislation on voting reform, rent control and granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

The six-month session was scheduled to end Wednesday, but such end-of-session deadlines are often blown by.

From improving protections for victims of sexual harassment to limiting greenhouse gas emissions and from legalizing electric scooters to making farm workers eligible for overtime, legislators have had a lengthy to-do list in the final days.

Here’s the latest on where things stood as of late Thursday night in the Assembly, which pulled an all-nighter and ended its session Friday at 7:19 a.m., and the Senate, which closed its house down for the year shortly before 1 a.m.

Sexual harassment

The Assembly and Senate Wednesday approved sweeping legislation that would make it easier for victims of sexual harassment to sue their employers.

The bill would improve protections for workers who say they’ve been sexually harassed; bar nondisclosure agreements and mandatory arbitration clauses in discrimination cases; and extend the statute of limitations to three years for discrimination or sexual harassment claims, among other changes.

Debate on the legislation followed a hearing held in February in the State Legislature to address the issue.

Former legislative and executive branch staffers testified to the harassment they said they experienced and the inadequate response from employers.

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat who last year unseated a powerful lawmaker accused by a Senate staffer of sexual misconduct, was a key backer of the bill.

"From the very beginning, this process has been about doing the necessary work to address the ways in which our current laws and systems silence victims of sexual harassment," Biaggi said after its passage.


Sports gambling

Efforts to legalize online sports betting in New York died in the Assembly. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said there are concerns that online betting would violate the state constitution.

Four upstate casinos, along with Indian tribes that operate casinos — including the Seneca Nation of Indians — are set sometime this year to begin offering in-person sports betting under the terms of a 2013 law. That statute said the casinos could add sports wagering if a federal ban was ever lifted.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned what had been a sports betting prohibition beyond Nevada and a couple of other states.

“I am disappointed. It was within our grasp,’’ said Sen. Joseph Addabbo, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Senate racing, gaming and wagering committee. He sponsored the sports betting bill, which passed in the Senate in recent days.

Addabbo said the state had an opportunity to bring in tax revenues, create jobs and redirect wagering money that now goes to sports bets off-shore and to states like New Jersey.

Farmworkers' rights

Both houses passed the Farmworker Fair Practices Labor Act, which proponents say provides those workers long-overdue protections.

The bill would allow farm workers to collectively bargain; pay them overtime after more than 60 hours per week, a compromise from the 40-hour triggering point in an early version; and guarantee them at least one day off per week. It does not allow them to strike.

Upstate farmers objected to elements of the legislation, saying it doesn’t consider the costs and demands of running a farm.

The Assembly and Senate passed the bill Wednesday following lengthy floor debates.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said the bill grants farm workers "the same rights and protections enjoyed by every other worker in New York State."

Catholic leaders said the bill recognizes “the basic human dignity” of farm workers, in the words of Albany Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger.

But Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, said on the floor that “outside interests" were driving the legislation.

He said he’s talked to several financially strapped family farmers in his district who told him, "This may be the last straw."

Climate change

A bill that backers said puts New York on a path to a low-carbon future has passed the Senate and Assembly.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act had the support of Cuomo and legislative leaders.

It would require 70% of electricity used in the state to come from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydro by 2030 — and 100% by 2040.

The act also sets the goal of eliminating 85% of greenhouse gas emissions — from a baseline of 1990 levels — from the state’s entire economy within 30 years.

A top official with the Business Council of New York State said the act puts the state in “uncharted territory.”

But activists lauded the ambitious clean-energy goals included in the bill.

Electric scooters

The Senate Wednesday gave final passage to a measure legalizing the use of electric scooters and electric bikes. The Assembly was expected to approve it sometime late Thursday or overnight.

The devices have become part of a sharply growing industry in some other states by companies that rent the devices by the minute for travel on streets and sidewalks.

The bill will let communities reject the devices’ use on their streets or impose stronger safety rules than the state bill requires. Localities could also restrict the devices to certain areas of a city, town or village.

Supporters said the devices will benefit the environment and provide additional ways for people to get to work or go shopping, especially in transit deserts with limited public transportation.

Adoptees' rights

A bill to let adults who were adopted as children obtain their original birth certificates — which has stalled in the Legislature since 1993 — was given final approval by the Assembly Thursday.

It gives adoptees, upon turning 18 years old, the same rights as non-adopted people to see their original birth certificate, giving them a path to try to find their birth parents.

Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, a Cheektowaga Democrat, told her colleagues on the Assembly floor that she was adopted, but that she did not think about trying to learn more about her birth parents until she was considering becoming pregnant. At that point, she said, she became “curious about my own history.’’

Wallace acknowledged that some birth parents might not want to be found by children they gave up for adoption. “But a lot happens in the 20, 30 or 40 years afterward when this person decides when they might want to find their birth parents,’’ she said. Moreover, adoptees should have a way to find out if they might have any problems in their medical histories.

“It’s really paramount that we give these adopted children (ways) to learn about their history and learn, in particular, about any medical complications that they need to know about,’’ she said.

Buffalo School Board

The State Senate and Assembly Thursday passed a bill intended to boost turnout in Buffalo’s School Board elections by moving the vote from May to November.

The School Board just held elections last month for all its members, so any change in the day wouldn’t take effect until the terms of those members are up.

That’s three years from now for district representatives and five years for at-large members.

The legislation was opposed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

But proponents noted fewer than 7% of registered voters in the city turned out in last month’s election.

“The vote turnout in May has been abysmal, embarrassing,” State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, a bill sponsor, said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Kennedy emphasized the importance of more people turning out to select the board members who vote on the district’s $1 billion budget.

Bid to move Buffalo School Board vote awaits approval

Amherst alienation

A bill that would ease the way for development near Amherst’s Northtown Center athletic facilities passed the State Senate Thursday.

The town is seeking the state’s permission for a future exchange of parkland with Mensch Capital Partners, which owns the former Westwood Country Club.

Amherst officials say this alienation process would preserve most of the former golf course as green space.

The town is asking the state to preemptively alienate much of its Audubon recreational complex — about 93 acres — to give it flexibility as it hashes out details with Mensch.

Assemblywoman Karen McMahon, D-Amherst, said Thursday the legislation should pass once the Assembly takes up the consent bills on its agenda.

A handful of town residents have spoken out against the legislation. Judy Ferraro, a leading opponent of development on the Westwood property, said the trade is potentially too favorable to Mensch.

“My interest is Westwood, and the preservation and protection of our environment,” Ferraro said at Monday’s Amherst Town Board meeting. “I do not like the larger project of appeasing each of the Mensch partners, at the expense of the public.”

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