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March 21, 2019

Voting reforms will kick off busy opening month of state legislative session

January 11, 2019
Senate Deputy Majority Leader, Michael Gianaris, D-Astoria, left introduces newly-elected Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, during opening day of the 2019 legislative session in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (Hans Pennink / AP)

ALBANY — The Legislature will look to hit the ground running beginning Monday with passage of a number of long-anticipated voting and campaign reforms, including the closure of a controversial loophole that allows companies to give virtually unlimited amounts of campaign cash.

The voting reform package will be the first major undertaking by the Assembly and Senate, which are now controlled for the first time in a decade by the Democrats.

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The package and a host of other issues set to be taken up in the next few weeks have all been routinely blocked in previous years by Republicans, who long controlled the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Wednesday that “there is nothing to stop us and there is so much more that we have to accomplish. But we were sent here to be ambitious, to make New York a beacon of hope and progress for the rest of our country.”

The voting and campaign reform package set to be passed on Monday will include a measure to close what is known as the LLC loophole. Under current law, corporations and real estate interests can create limited liability companies that are subject to the higher individual donation limits rather than the $5,000 annual contribution imposed on corporations.

Companies can form as many LLCs, which are often hard to track, as they like, giving them virtually no contribution limits.

LLCs have donated millions of dollars, largely to Gov. Cuomo and the Senate Republicans, who for years blocked closure of the loophole.

But with the Democrats in charge — and Cuomo supporting the effort — the Legislature will now pass the bill that not only caps LLC contributions at $5,000, but also requires them to disclose who is behind them.

Other bills to be acted upon by the Senate and Assembly on Monday authorize early voting in New York, merge the state and federal primary date into one June vote, and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote.

The Legislature will also give first passage to two state constitutional amendments that would allow same-day registration and mail-in voting. Lawmakers, by law, would have to pass the measures again in 2021 before voters would decide whether to enact them.

On Tuesday — the same day Cuomo will deliver his joint state of the state and budget address — the Senate and Assembly are scheduled to act on a bill to provide anti-discrimination protections to transgender New Yorkers and outlaw a controversial and debunked form of therapy designed to turn gay people straight.

Cuomo has signed executive orders addressing the issues, but once passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, they will now have the force of law.

The following week, to mark the anniversary of the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion, lawmakers are set to pass bills to strengthen the state’s abortion laws and require insurance companies to provide free contraceptive coverage.

Lawmakers are also expected to pass a bill that will no longer link state student assessment scores to teacher evaluations.

It’s also possible that in late January, lawmakers will give approval to a bill to create a state Dream act that would provide access to state college tuition programs to the college children of undocumented immigrants.

A gun control package that Cuomo touted on Thursday that has been pushed by legislative Democrats, particularly in the Senate, is likely to be taken up late January or early February, officials say.

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Behind the scenes, there has been jockeying between the Legislature and Cuomo over who controls the agenda. Legislative insiders accuse Cuomo of trying to steal their thunder by moving up his budget address and outlining an agenda they say is largely theirs.

They point to an email Cuomo sent out Thursday touting voting reform proposals at the same time legislators formally introduced the bills as well as a statement he released touting a gun control package..

“We’re all about getting things done, he’s all about the credit,” said one legislative official.

Added another: “It’s going to be a long year if he can’t understand that each branch has its own role and that there’s enough credit to go around.”

Cuomo this week told reporters he believes passage of the agenda he laid out for the first 100 days of the session, which hues closely to that of the Legislature’s, will be historic.

“We’re very excited that key voting reforms that are part of the Governor’s 100-day agenda will taken up by the legislature on Monday. We look forward to working with them to go further and enact public campaign financing, make Election Day a state holiday and ban corporate contributions once and for all,” Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior advisor, said.

Acknowledging “heartbreaking” scandals that rocked his office but also the rest of state government, Cuomo on Thursday also promised a “very aggressive” ethics agenda this year that will include reforms to how the Legislature does business.

Cuomo, on upstate public radio’s “The Capitol Connection”, revisited a push he has made in the past to require the Legislature to adhere to the state freedom of information laws that cover the release of public records.

Currently, the Assembly and Senate, unlike the executive branch, are not bound by the disclosure laws.

Cuomo called the fact “just unbelievable.”

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