ALBANY – State lawmakers have been moving this week to do everything from clawing back some civil and criminal liability protections they gave to health facilities during the Covid-19 peak in New York to declaring high-speed internet access to be a “fundamental right.”
Deals coming together include:
• Tightening what critics say have been loopholes used by developers in Buffalo and elsewhere to gain access to lucrative tax breaks in ways the original state law never intended.
• Requiring state telecommunications regulators to examine why broadband access is still so spotty and expensive in many areas of the state.
• Providing low-income New Yorkers with a way to stretch out fines for traffic infractions rather than losing their license for not immediately paying the state.
Final approval was given Wednesday to legislation prohibiting schools from using facial recognition software -- a bill that would force Lockport schools to turn off its cameras.
Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, a Lancaster Democrat, said Lockport and other schools were inappropriately tapping into a state bond program to pay for the controversial software that was intended for other school improvements and student resources. The bill requires a halt to the software programs statewide until state education officials can study a number of issues, including whether the technology is being used for security or student discipline, how data is stored and who has access to it and the accuracy rates of the software.
“It was pretty clear there were no parameters or guidelines or restrictions on the use of this technology,’’ said Wallace, the bill's sponsor.
Much of the work getting done this week would have been on the calendar in the first couple of days of June for what was scheduled to be the end of the 2020 session in Albany.
But the Covid-19 pandemic threw off the New York Legislature’s schedule and lawmakers have been treating this week as a kind of end-of-session gathering, pushing through hundreds of bills, often with no debate and while operating under emergency Covid-19 rules that no longer require lawmakers to be in their seats or checked into the chamber to vote.
It’s a bit of an unusual end-of-session atmosphere because lawmakers know they will have to reconvene at some point this year to deal with the state government’s collapsing finances.
It’s also unusual because much of the agenda in the two houses this week appears to be more rank-and-file driven, instead of the big legislative deals made by leadership in the Senate and Assembly along with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Of course, anything can change on a dime in Albany, and much can still happen before lawmakers head home – or shut down the laptops in their home office or on their dining room table – on Thursday.
Here's a look at some of the issues on the table.
Developer tax breaks
The Legislature is poised to limit what lawmakers say has been major loopholes in a tax break program intended to spur mixed-used commercial and residential development in the state. The 485-a program has been underway for more than a decade, but lawmakers say developers have used creative workarounds in construction of buildings to drive millions in tax breaks in violation of the spirit of the original law.
The Buffalo News reported last year that a government watchdog group estimated the value of the tax break program in Buffalo at $66.9 million between the end of 2019 and the end of 2030.
The legislation in Albany will put new limits on what projects can qualify for the breaks, impose new inspection rules on localities to check up on development projects, and set specific percentage standards for mixed uses in a project to stop developers from counting things like a laundry room as a commercial component that permits them to get lucrative tax breaks.
Lawmakers are pressing to end certain civil and criminal legal liability protections that lawmakers just four months ago provided to health care providers and health workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
One bill expected to get final passage this week would reduce sweeping legal liability protections contained in the state budget that passed April 1; it calls for restoring previous liability protections for patients who are not infected with Covid-19 by allowing them to sue for medical mistakes made during their care. Health care trade groups are pushing hard against the bill.
Another measure seeks to ban employers from having employees or contractors sign waivers relieving them of legal responsibility if they catch the virus after returning to their workplace following Covid-caused employment disruptions.
Environmentalists hailed the final passage Wednesday of a measure to give new state protections to over 40,000 miles of so-called Class C streams, which include Tonawanda Creek and Cayuga Creek in Western New York. Such streams are those classified as suitable for fishing, drinking water and some forms of recreation, like boating.
The bill prevents landowners along those waterways from modifying a stream’s course or disturbing its banks.
“It’s more important as the federal government is moving away from enforcing the Clean Water Act," Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, said of the bill he sponsored. Ryan said landowners in some areas have disrupted or halted the flow of Class C streams – without any permits or permission – that flow to downstream farms and reservoirs used for drinking water in some communities.
The two houses approved legislation requiring police to video record all interrogations of juveniles in family court proceedings.
Lawmakers say the measure will help prevent false confessions and that recordings of the sessions will provide “an objective and reliable record of what occurred during an interrogation” and “prevents disputes about how an officer conducted himself or treated a suspect and serves as a useful training tool to police officers," according to a legislative memo in support of the bill.
Final passage was given Wednesday to a bill banning federal immigration agents and other law enforcement agencies from making civil arrests in and around state courthouses unless they have a court order. Lawmakers say federal agents have used court dockets to track down people in the country illegally, which puts a chilling effect on those people attending court proceedings, including ones in which they are accused of crimes or are survivors in a domestic abuse case.
Eye doctors are poised to get a legislative win after years of lobbying. The Assembly approved a bill letting optometrists prescribe oral medications; they are presently limited to giving patients topical prescriptions, a right they were first afforded in 1995. Forty-eight other states allow some form of oral drug prescription writing by eye doctors. The bill requires a special certification and other conditions. The Senate was looking to pass the bill on Wednesday or Thursday.
Online sports betting
A slew of fiscal-related items are on hold, or on life support. One of them: efforts to legalize mobile wagering on sports contests.
But one of the main proponents of the idea says he believes the state’s deteriorating finances are making some opponents softening their no votes in the Legislature. State Sen. Joseph Addabbo, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, said the state’s fiscal woes – at least a $13 billion deficit – is not going to be completely resolved by the U.S. Congress in their deliberations of the next big federal bailout bill.
As a fallback, Addabbo had a plan to push a constitutional amendment to permit online sports betting, a multiyear process that includes a statewide referendum. With that plan not happening this week in Albany, Addabbo said he believes there is “a clear path” to including the effort in whatever future revenue-raising bill lawmakers might have to consider perhaps sometime this summer.
“What’s the alternative? Deep cuts in health care? Deep cuts in education? Who wants to do that?" Addabbo said Wednesday.
Lawmakers are seeking fixes to a host of problems that occurred in many parts of the state during primary and special election contests in which the use of absentee voting – instead of in-person – soared. There will be a longer period for election boards to process ballots and a new “right to cure” provision to reduce the number of hypertechnical ways a ballot can be declared invalid.
Also due for passage Thursday: automatic voter registration, in which people having contact with state agencies – from DMV offices to social services agencies – will be registered to vote unless they affirmatively state they do not want to be.
State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said there are up to two million eligible New Yorkers who aren’t registered to vote. “We continue our efforts to go from worst to first in the nation in terms of voter participation," Gianaris said Wednesday.
New state holiday
Hundreds of bills on hundreds of topics have either passed this week or are poised to pass before lawmakers end session on Thursday. Some bills are stalled; a bill to ban retail store sales of dogs, cats and rabbits passed the Senate but has yet to move in the Assembly.
A bill designating June 19 as an official state holiday – Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of Black and African American slavery in the U.S. – is expected to get final approval Thursday.
Payment plans for traffic fines
There is a bill in the mix permitting drivers of autocycles – three-wheeled vehicles with a steering wheel and seat belts – to operate with a regular driver’s license and not just a motorcycle license.
A bill to permit payment plans for traffic-related fines or fees – instead of requiring immediate payment or face suspension of a driver’s license – was given final approval by the Senate Wednesday. The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, said it would provide justice to low-income people who need a license to get to work or school but yet can’t afford to immediately pay a traffic fine. He said states with such laws on the books have seen increases in payments for such fines and fees.
The bill provides a payment plan at 2% of an individual’s monthly income, or $10 per month, whichever is greater. One group advocating for the bill said more than a million licenses were suspended over a recent two-year period for failure to timely pay fines.
If lawmakers return later this year, it will likely be to deal with the state’s budget problems. Cuomo has said localities, including schools, face at least a 20% midyear state budget cut unless Washington comes through with a sizeable aid package for New York and other states.
“States are ground zero in this fight," Cuomo, along with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said in a joint statement Wednesday. Governors are seeking $500 billion from Congress in unrestricted aid and sharply higher payments by Washington for state Medicaid programs.