Marijuana Decriminalization to Pass, Wage Mandate Stalls

From The Times Union
By Chris Bragg

ALBANY — With the state Legislature going in overtime on Thursday, both chambers were set to pass legislation further lowering the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, after a proposal to legalize recreational adult use of the drug failed to gain enough support to win passage.

The legislative session was scheduled to end on Wednesday, adjourning until next January, but after a late night Wednesday, both the Assembly and Senate resumed voting on final bills for the year on Thursday.

In a radio interview on WAMC, Cuomo contended that the “decriminalization” of marijuana is still a major victory – one that he had tried to achieve without prior success since 2013.

“The decriminalization, though, is also historic,” Cuomo said. “Because the social crime of marijuana was that it victimized black and brown generations with convictions, that then hurt them for the rest of their lives. And it was enforced in a discriminatory way.”

But the governor’s comments were misleading.

Public defenders who have been tracking the issue said the latest proposal will likely still result in a disproportionate number of minorities arrested for low-level marijuana offenses. That’s because police can still arrest someone for a possession violation, and if they detect an odor of marijuana on someone it allows them to stop and frisk that person.

“This does nothing to change that and that’s the whole thing that motivated this call for legalization, was the racial disparities in arrests,” said Eli Northrup, an associate special counsel with The Bronx Defenders.

The latest bill at the Capitol also proposed that public possession of less than two ounces of the drug would no longer be a misdemeanor, but a person could still be ticketed for a violation. Possession of an ounce or less could result in a fine up to $50, and possession of between one and two ounces could result in a fine of up to $200. Possession of large amounts of the drug — more than eight ounces — would remain felonies with increasing severity as the amounts increase.

Northrup said the collateral consequences of an arrest or conviction for a low-level possession charge would still be problematic for some. Those offenses could cause problems for someone in an immigration or child-welfare proceeding, and also present difficulties in some instances getting housing, he said.

Cuomo had included legalization of recreational marijuana in the state budget in March, which he said would have been easier to pass because lawmakers could have simply voted in favor of the much broader measure. As a standalone bill, the measure simply did not have the necessary votes, Cuomo said.

While the failure to legalize marijuana was one setback, working for the first time with a Democratic state Senate this year, Cuomo called this the “the most successful legislative session in modern history.” He noted sweeping legislation promoting farm worker rights, protecting the LGBTQ community, and codifying abortion protections in state law. Lawmaker also passed sweeping bills to combat climate change and protect renters in New York City and beyond.

On Thursday, Cuomo declared a bill expanding a “prevailing wage” requirement that would apply to larger construction projects likely dead. The law would have expanded the definition of “public works” in New York to include projects receiving more than 30 percent of their funding from the government – making those projects eligible for the wage requirement. Powerful building trades unions, who are among Cuomo’s most significant political supporters, had pushed the mandate this session.

Cuomo made a last-minute push to exempt New York City from the requirement – instead implementing a one-year study of the measure there – while imposing the requirement on upstate New York. That upset not only some New York City lawmakers, who questioned why the requirement should not apply to jobs in the five boroughs, but upset some upstate lawmakers, who noted that the economy here is already at disadvantages compared to New York City.

“For many upstate members, including myself, applying it only to upstate was a complete nonstarter,” said Albany Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a Democrat.

Cuomo said in the radio interview that the Assembly was “quite clear that because it didn’t do anything for New York City, there was no interest in passing it,” while he said the state Senate would likely have passed it.

Cuomo noted concerns that if the mandate were too broad, it could prevent future construction and cost the state jobs.

Lawmakers were also concerned about a threshold in the prevailing wage bill that would have imposed the requirement to projects of $750,000 or more – a number that was too low in the eyes of some lawmakers. Some lawmakers in New York City, meanwhile, were concerned that the law would make it would be more difficult for non-union minority contractors to land construction contracts.

Brian Sampson, president of the Empire Chamber of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said that Cuomo had “tried to ride in at the last minute, and it blew up in his face.”

Sampson called the proposal to exempt prosperous New York City, while imposing the mandate upstate, “the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen in my two decades at the Capitol.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters around noon on Thursday that the carve out “wasn’t a poison pill, but I would say it was an issue of discussion.” Heastie said at that point the Assembly was “still trying to figure something out” on prevailing wage.”

Indeed, on Thursday afternoon, union advocates for the prevailing wage bill were still hopeful it would gain passage in some form. One possibility floated by lawmakers was a statewide study of the issue, similar to what had been proposed for New York City.

A measure to end long-term solitary confinement in state prisons also faced uncertain prospects, with Cuomo expressing concern about its fiscal impacts. And a bill to legalize paid gestational surrogacy has passed the state Senate, but appears unlikely to move through the Assembly.

Heastie said the measure faced opposition in part because the issue had emerged somewhat late in the session, and some Assembly Democrats had unresolved questions.

Lawmakers are also anticipating that capital spending bills will likely be part of any final end-of-session negotiation.

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