5 things to watch in final days of 2021 state legislative session

Originally published in Newsday on June 06, 2021.

ALBANY — Even while gubernatorial investigations and COVID-19 take up most of the political oxygen, state lawmakers still are trying to bring the 2021 legislative session to a close with a flurry.

Before they adjourn Thursday, lawmakers will weigh critical proposals about grand juries and "ghost guns," ethics and sexual abuse, parole for older inmates and prosecution of adolescents, phony vaccinations cards and real estate discrimination.

And if they have time, they might confirm a slew of judicial nominees, filling vacancies all the way from New York’s top court to the bench that hears lawsuits against the state.

Lawmakers will seek to bring the business of passing bills to a close even though the story of state politics in 2021 — the multiple investigations against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, touching on sexual harassment, COVID-19 and nursing homes and his $5.1 million book deal — will press on beyond the adjournment of the legislative session.

Here are five things to watch as lawmakers begin the final week of the session:

Gun safety

Democrats who control the Senate and Assembly are pushing a series of proposals to make it easier to be granted parole, to have it be harder for the police to use force against civilians and to reduce the flow of illegal guns.

One controversial bill would allow New Yorkers to sue gun manufacturers and dealers for crimes committed with their products. The Senate approved the bill Wednesday, but its fate is unclear in the Assembly.

Bill sponsors say they are gaining support, but the measure remains stuck in the Assembly Economic Development Committee (because it would amend state business laws to allow lawsuits) since April.

The Senate also approved a measure to outlaw weapons called "ghost guns" because they don’t have serial numbers. Because they are shipped unfinished, they skirt state and federal restrictions. A related one would prohibit the shipment of "unfinished receivers," which can be assembled with other parts into a fully usable firearm.

The Assembly has yet to take up either measure.

Police, parole

Progressives also are pushing bills to raise the standards under which police can use deadly force and one to curb legal immunity for police who kill or injure citizens. They want to end "qualified immunity," which largely grant government officials personal immunity from lawsuits except in certain cases.

But both the use-of-force and the immunity bills were facing long odds, given the few remaining legislative days, a source said.

That was also the case for a bill to end the secrecy around grand jury proceedings.

Assemb. Danny O’Donnell (D-Manhattan) sponsored the bill in response to numerous instances of grand juries declining to charge a police officer with a crime when involved in the death of civilian. It would allow the public release of certain testimony and grand jury instructions in instances in which no charges were lodged.

"Closed door grand jury proceedings breed distrust, especially in high- profile cases involving an officer who has killed a civilian," O’Donnell said when the Assembly approved the bill Wednesday.

But it’s not clear the Senate will follow suit.

Another measure that hangs in the balance is one to raise the minimum age for arrest and prosecution of children as juvenile delinquents to 12 years old. Currently, New York sets the minimum age at 7, the second-lowest in the nation, reform advocates said.

Also at stake are two high-profile parole bills. One, dubbed "elder parole," would allow any inmate 55 or older who has served 15 or more consecutive years in prison to automatically be granted a parole hearing regardless of type of crime or other factors.

Another would allow the State Parole Board to release an inmate after reviewing their prison record and determining he or she wouldn't present an "unreasonable risk" to the community.

In opposing the bill, the District Attorneys Association of New York State said it would prevent the Parole Board from considering the seriousness of the underlying crime. Supporters of the bill said in a memo that using the crime as a factor in parole decisions — even if the crime was committed decades earlier — too often results in denials for low-risk individuals.

Republicans, in the minority in each house, accuse Democrats of making a "last-minute push that will further weaken public protection laws."

"For far too long have we have been forced by our Democrat colleagues to protect criminals, letting them get away with almost everything," said Assemb. Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head) as part of a GOP effort to push long-shot bills to allow judges to hold more defendants in jail without bail and make it more difficult to be granted parole.

Real estate discrimination

The fate of a series of anti-discrimination proposals sparked by a Newsday investigation of real estate agencies on Long Island rests with the Assembly.

The Senate in February approved bills calling for stiffer penalties for housing discrimination, more anti-bias training for real estate agents and an initiative to deploy undercover homebuyers to test whether agents are "steering" customers toward or away from certain neighborhoods.

The action was triggered by "Long Island Divided," a Newsday investigation that found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of minority homebuyers.

The findings included evidence that some agents directed minority potential homebuyers toward homes in neighborhoods with comparatively higher concentrations of minority residents and that agents sometimes required preapproved mortgages from Black or Hispanic customers but not white ones.

In 40% of the tests, evidence suggested brokers subjected minorities to disparate treatment when compared with white testers. Black testers experienced disparate treatment 49% of the time; Hispanics 39%, and Asians 19%.

Courts

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo nominated 16 judicial candidates for various midlevel and lower court appointments for the Senate to consider. But he also made two high-profile nominations to the Court of Appeals, New York’s top court: Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and New York City administrative judge Anthony Cannataro.

If confirmed, Singas and Cannataro would fill two vacancies in the seven-member court.

Though Singas, a longtime prosecutor, is facing opposition from some progressive activists, the Senate Judiciary Committee was planning on holding a hearing on her nomination either Monday or Tuesday, officials said.

Another high profile legal issue is the "Adult Survivors Act." Modeled somewhat after the "Child Victims Act" adopted in 2019, it would temporarily suspend the statute of limitations barrier for filing lawsuits for alleged sexual abuse. If approved, the new law would give people who were abused when they were 18 or older a one year window to file lawsuits.

The Senate unanimously approved the Adult Survivors Act but it has been stalled in the Assembly.

Vaccinations

Each house has approved a bill to make it a crime to forge vaccine cards. But the bills don’t match and carry dramatically different penalties. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hills) carries a maximum penalty of 1½ to 4 years in prison. The Assembly version, sponsored by Assemb. Jeff Dinowitz (D-Bronx), is much harsher, calling for a 5- to 15-year prison sentence for possession of 50 or more phony vaccination cards.

It is unclear if the Senate and Assembly will unite behind one version before the adjourn.