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Legislature adjourns, leaving unfinished business

WBFO file photo/Avery Schneider

The 2021 legislative session concluded in the early hours of Friday morning, with a number of measures left unresolved.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, speaking on the Senate floor Thursday evening as the session drew to a close, indicated the legislature’s business is done for the year.

“We’ll be back in this chamber in January,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Hopefully all together, unmasked.”

A Senate spokesman says the Senate will return briefly later in the summer to act on some remaining appointments that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sought, including confirming the head of the state’s new cannabis management office, to implement the state’s new legal marijuana industry.

In a statement, Senator Stewart-Cousins said talks continue on some issues and the Senate would return to act on them "if necessary."

Among the measures that fell off the table in the final hours is the Clean Slate legislation, which would seal criminal records for those convicted of misdemeanors and many felonies who have already served their time. Attempts for a last-minute deal with Cuomo to pass the measure by day’s end failed. The governor was seeking changes to the MTA leadership that would result in the governor having more direct control over the transit authority, but the talks ended with no resolution.

Just one of three parole reform bills was approved, with the approved bill making it harder to send parolees back to jail on technical violations. The two other measures did not get a vote: one would have allowed inmates an automatic parole hearing if they were age 55 and older and served 15 years of their sentence, the other would've allowed the parole board to give more weight to a prisoner’s good behavior when considering granting release.

Anti-sexual harassment measures, approved in the Senate, did not come to the floor in the State Assembly, leading advocates to accuse Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of caring more about preserving the institution of the Assembly than protecting survivors.

Elizabeth Crothers with the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which is made up of former employees of the legislature who say they were sexually harassed, spoke before the session ended.

“That the assembly hasn’t passed it is mystifying, unless you look at it as part of a pattern,” said Crothers, whose group says the Assembly has had a poor track record on handling sexual harassment cases.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the highest-ranking woman in the Assembly, addressed the lack of action on the sexual harassment bills. In a statement Thursday night, she said the assembly has “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and while advocates have raised “a number of issues that deserve consideration,” members want to wait and make sure they “do it right” in a “deliberate and thorough process.”

That led the Sexual Harassment Working Group to call the Assembly’s failure to pass the legislation “incredibly brazen.”

“Workers don’t need a bunch of legislators, sitting around thinking about what women and workers in New York go through every day: we need action,” the group said. “Get it together and do your job.”

There were some accomplishments in the final days of the session. Lawmakers passed a bill to hold gun manufacturers liable if the weapons they produce are used in a crime; they also closed loopholes that allow so called "ghost guns" to be created when the components are purchased separately, avoiding registration and background checks. Other bills make it easier to vote early and cast absentee ballots.

Cuomo, who was largely absent from the end of session action, and is embroiled in several scandals, has not said whether he will sign any of the bills.

Republicans, who are in the minority in the legislature, said they were disappointed that the legislature did not act to fully rescind Cuomo’s vast emergency pandemic powers, now that the rate of coronavirus infections are waning.

“I believe that’s a missed opportunity,” said GOP Senate Leader Robert Ortt, who accused democrats of not having the “guts” to stand up to Cuomo.

The State Assembly is continuing a months-long impeachment inquiry into sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo, as well as accusations the governor used staff to help him write a book for which he was paid $5.1 million. Cuomo denies the accusations. The Assembly did not give any timeline for when the inquiry might be completed.

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.