EDITORIAL: Lawmakers leave much left work undone

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If you could give the state Legislature a grade for the recently concluded legislative session, you might go with an “incomplete.”

And for a change, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in every case.

Lawmakers concluded their annual session Thursday night, less than two weeks before the June 22 legislative primaries, leaving a lot of important matters on the table for the next go-round.

There were some vital measures they should have passed and some they shouldn’t have.

And on some proposals, it’s a good thing for New Yorkers that lawmakers weren’t able to find agreement.

Perhaps the incomplete grade comes from the distractions they faced, first from the ongoing COVID crisis that caused such consternation in the creation of the state budget (more on that later), and then with the workplace harassment and nursing home scandals surrounding Gov. Andrew Cuomo, both of which took time and attention away from legislative matters.

But if lawmakers had the will, we suppose they could have gotten more done.

Among the major accomplishments of the session early on were the approval of legalized recreational marijuana and the passage of online gaming, both of which are expected to generate tax revenue for the state in the foreseeable future — although we’re guessing not as much as they anticipate given competition from other states. Still, for those who had pushed hard for those initiatives over the years, those were accomplishments.

Another accomplishment passed right at the end of the session were reforms to the state election process to make it easier for people to vote early and to speed the counting of ballots.

Environmentally, as we wrote about Friday, the state will expand testing for toxic chemicals in drinking water supplies and compile a list of emerging contaminants that must be tested. In the wake of the 2015 Hoosick Falls PFOA pollution, it’s a long-fought victory for safe water.

Some criminal justice reforms were passed and some weren’t. Among reforms to the parole system was one that would prevent certain parolees from being returned to jail for minor technical violations, such as missing appointments. In those cases, the punishment of returning someone to jail didn’t fit the crime. So it’s good that it passed.

On the incomplete side, those who enjoy concerts, sporting events and other entertainment didn’t get the reforms to the ticket system that drives up prices and frustrates ticket-buyers. Instead, lawmakers approved a one-year extension of existing rules, essentially kicking the can down the road with the promise of passing some reforms later.

A bill that would allow adult sex abuse victims to bring civil action against their abusers beyond the statute of limitations through a one-year look-back window (similar to the Child Victims Act) didn’t get through the Assembly as many advocates had hoped.

Victims’ advocates hope next year’s version of the bill includes a fund to help pay for victims to bring legal cases.

Advocates for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace got little help, particularly from the Assembly, generating anger and accusations that lawmakers were only interested in maintaining the status quo.

Lawmakers also didn’t extend a COVID-era business measure that allows restaurants and bars to sell alcohol through takeout or pickup.

The measure to help restaurants and bars recover from the economic shutdown was opposed by liquor stores, which fared well during the pandemic.

The governor can still extend to-go alcohol sales through executive action.

One measure that didn’t pass — which is actually a good thing for New Yorkers — was the Clean Slate Legislation, which would seal the criminal records of those convicted of misdemeanors and many felonies after they’ve served their time.

The measure is seen as a way to help people put mistakes of the past behind them and prevent discrimination in employment and housing. But we’ve felt the lack of transparency in someone’s criminal background was harmful to victims, employers, landlords and the general public, who might find knowledge about someone’s criminal background valuable.

Criminal justice reforms should prevent injustice, not excuse past behavior. So it’s good that proposal got shelved.

But it likely will come back next year, hopefully, with a list of fewer crimes that can legitimately be sealed.

Among the proposals to reform the parole system that didn’t get through were those opening the opportunities for the release of older inmates and another that would have given more weight to a prisoner’s good behavior in parole decisions. Compassion and public safety will likely clash again next year over these reforms.

And the Legislature failed to end the COVID emergency or significantly strip the governor of his executive powers under the emergency as they should have done.

They also left potential impeachment proceedings to another time, leaving the public unsure if they’ll deal with it at all.

We’ve already talked about the state budget in earlier editorials, criticizing lawmakers for failing to take advantage of a windfall from the federal government to reduce spending and make difficult decisions to reduce New Yorkers’ high tax burden.

Rather than use the billions of dollars from the federal stimulus package to get their fiscal house in order and address vital needs — the way someone might use an inheritance or lottery winnings to pay off credit card debt — lawmakers instead largely treated the one-time revenue rescue as an excuse to continue their free-spending, wasteful, inefficient ways.

In the long term, that may be the most significant and most negative impact of this legislative session, as it will continue to contribute to the exodus of New Yorkers to other states and to the financial struggles of the residents and businesses that remain.

Certainly the pandemic and the governor’s troubles could have taken legislative leaders’ attention away from legislative matters and left them less time to complete negotiations as the session ticked down to its end.

And given that the governor is still under investigation and could face impeachment, or at the very least a politically debilitating report on his conduct, this situation could very well carry over into the next session and further stymie action on necessary legislation.

So “incomplete” is the best grade we can give lawmakers for now.

There’s still much more work to be done.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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