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With session waning, lawmakers try to forge agreements

Matt Ryan/New York Now

Legislative leaders have announced an agreement in principle on nine bills that they say will extend and strengthen New York City’s rent laws. It’s part of an effort to get a number of bills passed before adjournment later in June.

In a joint statement, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said they will “advance a historic package of tenant protections that encompasses the principles of the nine bills” that have been circulating at the Capitol in recent weeks.

But they were short on the details of those bills. Most of the measures have the votes to pass in the state Assembly. They include ending vacancy decontrol, which allows apartments to be removed from rent regulation restrictions once the rents reach a certain threshold, under increases granted each year by the rent board.

And the Assembly supports a version of what tenants groups call the “good cause” bill. It would strengthen tenants’ rights against unfair evictions in all parts of the state.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke about the bills mid-week, saying they will include “elements” of the good cause bill.

“We can put forward a package that covers all nine issues,” Heastie said.

Despite the statement of an agreement in principle between the leaders, the bills face a more uncertain fate in the state Senate. The legislation might have to be modified to win approval from Democrats representing Long Island and Hudson Valley districts that are more conservative.

Stewart-Cousins, also speaking mid-week, was not ready to talk specifics about which bills have the votes to pass right now.

“I don’t have a number I’m prepared to give you,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But Stewart-Cousins predicted the new rent laws will be the “strongest ever.”

Tenant advocates have urged the Senate and Assembly to work together on the rent laws without Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but Stewart-Cousins would not say whether she might do that.

“We’ll do whenever it comes together, with whomever it comes together with,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We’re interested in getting the work done, not so much who does it first and who does it second.”

Cuomo has been criticizing his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature in recent days for lack of action on renewing rent control and other items. But Cuomo also has threatened to veto any rent renewal agreement that is approved without his participation.

The governor on Friday pressed for two items he’d like to see finished before the session ends. He wants to legalize gestational surrogacy for couples who are infertile, and strengthen those rights for same-sex couples.

The governor also wants to end the so-called “gay panic” defense that has been used in New York if someone commits violence against an LGBTQ person.

Cuomo said time in the session is growing short.

“We have 11 days left in the legislative session,” Cuomo said. “Eleven days is like two minutes left in a ballgame. It goes very quickly.”

There are other major issues still on the table, including whether to grant standard driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and legalizing the adult use of recreational use of marijuana. New versions of those bills have been introduced in recent days.

The bills might not have enough votes to pass either house right now, though the measures have many supporters in the Senate and Assembly. But Stewart-Cousins said for recreational cannabis, it’s only a matter of time.

“I don’t think anybody doubts that marijuana will be legalized,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Outstanding issues include where the revenue from the sale of marijuana should go. The Assembly sponsor wants reparations for communities adversely affected by the decades-long prohibition of the drug. There’s also discussion about whether past criminal records for marijuana possession should be sealed or completely expunged.

The rent laws expire on June 15. That date might give the governor and lawmakers the incentive they need to work together on a plan.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.