ALBANY, N.Y. — Legalized marijuana, sports betting and new traffic tolls in Manhattan are just some of the measures Democrats believe they can push through the New York Legislature in a 2019 session that begins this week with their party in control of both chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in a decade.
Lawmakers swept into office in a backlash against President Donald Trump’s plan to fight back against his policies on immigration, the environment and healthcare, while also seeking to catch up to neighbors such as Massachusetts, which has already legalized marijuana, and New Jersey, which has approved sports betting.
Other items on their wish list include expanding state health care programs, codifying protections for abortion rights, reforming antiquated voting laws and eliminating cash bail for criminal defendants.
“People will finally get the government they have been voting for for so many years,” predicted Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, of Yonkers, the first woman to lead a legislative body in New York.
First up when lawmakers convened Wednesday may be the Child Victims Act, a long-debated bill that would extend the statute of limitations for child molestation and create a one-year window for victims to sue over old abuse claims now barred by the statute of limitations. The measure has repeatedly passed the state Assembly only to be blocked by the Senate’s Republican leaders under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church.
Cuomo wants to include marijuana legalization in the state budget, due by April 1, a remarkably short time frame for such a complicated issue. Regardless of what form legalization may take, many lawmakers want a phased-in approach similar to the one adopted in Massachusetts, where personal possession and cultivation of marijuana were legalized long before the first retail shops were allowed to open.
Approving new congestion tolls for New York City will be just as politically challenging. Supporters, including environmental groups, transit advocates and even local chambers of commerce, argue that new surcharges on vehicles entering the busiest parts of Manhattan are the best way to discourage driving while raising billions to repair and modernize the city’s subways. Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the idea. But the details — how high will the toll be, will local commuters and small businesses get a discount? — could undermine the push.
Riders and transportation advocates say Albany must find some way to fund subway repairs or else the nation’s largest city will have to live with a system that has fallen far behind its peers in other global cities.
“New York City’s subways are falling apart. Service disruptions and frequent delays have become all too common, contributing to what has become a daily nightmare for many of New York City’s riders,” said Jaqi Cohen, of the Stranghangers Campaign, a coalition of subway riders.
The six-month session is likely to test Cuomo’s certitude and the sincerity of lawmakers who now have the chance to enact policies they’ve spent years talking about. Last year’s elections sent a wave of new, liberal lawmakers from New York City to Albany, where they may butt heads with Capitol insiders and more moderate lawmakers from the suburbs and upstate. Cuomo may find himself in the middle, forced to balance the ambitions of liberals with the realities of governing a state with 20 million people and a $168 billion budget.
And don’t forget the Republicans, who promise to do what they can to force the governing party to the bargaining table. That includes GOP senators still smarting from November’s defeat.
“Even though Senate Republicans now make up the minority of this chamber,” said Sen. John Flanagan, the Republican minority leader, “our voice on issues important to hardworking middle-class families will be more critical than ever.”
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