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Democratic lawmakers say despite disagreements, they intend to remain in session to the end

The New York legislative session is due to end in three weeks, but some state lawmakers are talking about leaving a week early because they believe they will accomplish so little in that time.

Political gridlock in the state Senate and worsening relations between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and majority-party Senate Republicans have led some lawmakers to say that perhaps they should end the session early.

But Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said his Democratic members are staying until at least June 20, the scheduled end of the session.

“I don’t see the necessity to end the session early,” Heastie said. “There are a lot of bills that members want to get done.”

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said her conference also will remain.

“We have a schedule that’s been planned, and I want to stay here and push for the people of New York,” Stewart-Cousins said. “That’s what they expect.”

But the Senate is gridlocked with 31 members in each of two factions; 32 members are needed to form a majority in the chamber.

Thirty-one Democrats all now meet together under Stewart-Cousins. One Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder, meets with the 30 Republicans. The Senate had 31 Republicans, but one GOP senator, Tom Croci, left earlier this month for active military service.

Senate Democrats tried to force some action and proposed a hostile amendment that would enact the women’s reproductive health act. Among other things, the act would codify the abortion rights provisions in the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision into New York state law.

Abortion has been legal in New York since 1970. But Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said that’s led to a “false sense of security” because, she said, the 48-year-old laws are outdated.

“We treat abortion as a crime, still, in our criminal code, instead of the health code, where it belongs,” Miller said. “And we don’t fully ensure that birth control is affordable and accessible to everyone.”

Miller came to the Capitol to push for the measure.

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, said there is a way the deadlock could be broken. Democrats and Republicans could get together to vote on bills that they agree on, something she said seldom happens in Albany.

“Reaching across the aisle and deciding what the consensus is,” Lerner said. “And actually passing things that the people of New York need.”

She said there are other unresolved issues as well, including election reform and early voting, bail reform and the Child Victims Act to give survivors of childhood sexual abuse greater access to the courts to sue their abusers. 

Some other items include expanding sports gambling, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has said that states can allow it.

And the Cuomo administration’s Department of Health is expected to soon release a report detailing how to legalize recreational marijuana in New York.

Heastie said he backs the idea, because he believes the current laws have led to a disproportionate share of African-American and Latino New Yorkers being arrested for marijuana possession.

And he said those criminal records should be expunged as part of any new legislation.

“Why should people still be having trouble getting jobs and having a record for something that now could be legal?” Heastie said. “So, I think it has to be a broader discussion.”

Lerner said if legislators really can’t agree on anything, they should end the session.

“If they’re not going to pass laws, well, they just ought to be honest,” Lerner said.

She said it would save taxpayers the $175 a day that lawmakers receive to cover expenses whenever they are at the Capitol.

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.