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State legislative session draws to a quieter, less-frenzied close

Karen DeWitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent
TeAna Taylor speaks in favor of the Elder Parole bill, which would give older inmates access to a parole hearing.

New York’s legislative session is drawing to a close, but without the usual frenzy of hallways crowded with lobbyists and protesters and few last minute backroom deals. For the second year in a row, the New York State Capitol has been off limits to visitors and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, facing multiple scandals, is largely isolated from the negotiations.

COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have been lifted in New York in recent weeks. Sports stadiums, theaters, restaurants and bars are opening back up. The Capitol, though, remains closed to the public, and has been since March 2020.

Advocates for changes to the state’s parole laws, to allow elderly incarcerated persons a chance at a parole hearing, camped in tents on the lawn outside and made speeches through a bullhorn, perhaps hoping they would be heard inside the Capitol’s 6-foot thick granite walls.

Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, was part of a news conference held in an underground hallway by the Capitol’s security checkpoints Thursday, because that was the closest that he and restaurant owners could get to the Assembly and Senate chambers.  

Wexler believes the inability to gain direct access to lawmakers hurt the chances of passing of a bill to extend the pandemic alcohol-to-go rule for take-out meals.

Scott Wexler, with the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, speaks in favor of extending alcohol-to-go, outside the state Capitol on Thursday.
Credit Karen DeWitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent

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“There’s a lot of misinformation that’s been put out,” Wexler said. “If you can’t get in to talk to legislators, if you can’t get in their offices, if you can’t meet them for meetings, then it’s very hard to dissuade the misinformation.”

“We are not in any way shape or form back to our pre-pandemic levels,” said Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York Restaurant Association. She added that the industry has lost billions of dollars and thousands of jobs since March 2020.

“Alcohol to-go helps our restaurants, it helps their sales,” she said.

The Senate and Assembly have separate bills that would extend the alcohol to-go rule permanently or with a one-year sunset provision, but the houses did not plan to act on them or try to agree on one measure before the session ended.

Democrats, who lead both houses of the legislature, have said they were waiting for Cuomo’s Office of General Services, which maintains the Capitol, to determine a date for reopening. Several weeks ago, a spokesman for the agency said a reopening was occurring soon.

Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said the closure is unfortunate.

“We come from the people’s house,” said Barclay. “It’s a little odd that we don’t actually have people at the people’s house.”

Another difference this year is there is no major end-of-session agreement on a variety of bills by Cuomo and the legislative leaders, known in Albany parlance as “the big ugly.”

Cuomo, facing multiple scandals including allegations of sexual harassment, a federal investigation into COVID nursing home death numbers and an Assembly impeachment inquiry, has been disengaged from end of session talks. Cuomo denies any wrongdoing and said that he did not really need anything from the legislature.

He said almost everything he wanted was completed earlier in the year as part of the state budget, but he did seek Senate confirmation of a slate of judges and other appointments to public boards.

“That’s my priority,” Cuomo said on June 7.

The governor received approval for two nominees for the state’s high court, although 10 senators voted against the choice of Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas as a Court of Appeals judge.

Cuomo, who for months has avoided any public appearances at the Capitol, spent part of the week in New York City, where he appeared at events to reopen the Tribeca Film Festival. He also touted the state’s declining COVID positivity numbers, perhaps counting on the public to be more concerned with the waning coronavirus than the activities of the legislature.

“The state of New York has the lowest COVID positivity rate in the entire country,” Cuomo said, to applause.

In another change from past traditions, the Assembly, which often was the first to approve progressive-leaning legislation, has delayed passage of a number of bills approved in the Senate.

Senators okayed a package of anti-sexual harassment bills, including the creation of the Adult Survivors Act, which would create a one-year look-back window for adult survivors of sexual abuse and harassment to sue their abusers. Those measures have not advanced in the Assembly.

The lower house has also not acted on a bill approved by the Senate that would put a moratorium on cryptocurrency mining, which requires high levels of electricity to operate.

However, the state Senate and Assembly did pass the Less is More Act, a bill to end the arrest and prosecution of kids below the age of 12, except in homicide cases. New Yorkers would avoid jail time for nonviolent parole violations and children under age 12 could no longer be arrested as juveniles under the measure, which now goes to the governor for his signature.

While the last official day of the 2021 session was Thursday, the Assembly’s impeachment inquiry, which began in March, is continuing. If the Judiciary Committee were to decide there’s enough evidence to impeach Cuomo, then lawmakers would have to return for impeachment proceedings and a Senate trial. The committee has not set a timeline for when a decision might be made.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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.
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