Pot, political maps, COVID aid on Hochul, lawmakers’ agenda
New York’s Democrat-controlled Legislature will make key decisions in 2022 on everything from the roll-out of recreational marijuana sales to how best to help New Yorkers amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has promised to announce sweeping initiatives for 2022 in her State of the State address Wednesday, including overhauls of the state’s ethics rules and the public university system.
The Legislature has until April to pass a budget and decide the fate of billions in projected surplus.
Lawmakers are also facing tough decisions on how to draw new political district maps, the fate of an expiring COVID-19 eviction moratorium and how to meet a sweeping climate change law requiring far less reliance on fossil fuels.
STATE OF THE STATE
Hochul plans to deliver her address from the Assembly Chamber to distanced attendees due to the COVID-19 uptick.
The Democrat, who took office in August after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo stepped down amid sexual harassment allegations, has vowed to restore governmental integrity.
She’ll propose term limits and a ban on nearly all outside income for the state’s governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller.
Hochul has said she’ll also offer plans to boost offshore wind and electric vehicle infrastructure, expand mail-in-voting and support health care workers.
Hochul, of Buffalo, is negotiating with the Buffalo Bills on a plan for taxpayers to help fund a stadium that could cost $1.35 billion. It’s unclear whether she’ll reveal more details Wednesday.
Lawmakers must soon approve maps that will divide New York into new legislative and congressional districts for the next decade.
In 2014, voters frustrated with partisan gerrymandering tasked an independent commission with drawing up maps.
But on Monday, the commission failed to release a single compromise map.
Democratic and Republican commissioners have released two competing maps and blamed the other for failing to compromise.
Stakes are high in dwindling, conservative-friendly upstate communities: new Census data shows New York will lose its 27th congressional seat.
Democratic commissioners want to split the GOP-held 23rd district: their map would group together liberal-friendly Utica and Syracuse and combine conservative communities into other districts. Republicans proposed overhauling New York City districts and splitting up Hudson Valley’s 18th district.
The Legislature has 10 days to approve or reject the maps with two-thirds votes in each chamber. If those maps fail, the commission could submit maps again.
And if those maps fail, the Legislature could pass maps of their own. Democrats with legislative supermajorities could potentially give themselves more districts.
League of Women Voters of New York State Executive Director Laura Ladd Bierman said the commission’s failure “constitutes an abdication of the Commission’s responsibilities, confuses the redistricting process and places the interests of New York State voters in fair representation at risk.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers face another hurdle: voters in 2014 also banned partisan gerrymandering.
Last March, New York allowed adults over the age of 21 to possess up to three ounces of cannabis and smoke marijuana in tobacco-friendly spots.
But more than nine months later, marijuana shops still can’t open.
Cuomo long failed to release nominees to set up New York’s recreational marijuana industry. Hochul did so in September.
The board’s now drawing up new rules for CBD products, including tinctures and oils.
And the public could comment on new pot regulations as soon as this month, state cannabis board chair Tremaine Wright said at a Crain’s New York Dec. 15 forum.
Businesses could apply for adult-use licenses this fall under that timeline.
Meanwhile, pot activists want New York to launch the industry swiftly and ensure mega-corporations won’t crowd out small dispensaries.
And critics, including some Republicans, want New York to delay pot sales to give municipalities more time to review regulations.
About 40% of roughly 1,500 municipalities in New York opted out of legal pot sales by a Dec. 31 deadline. Those municipalities can later decide to opt-in.
New York has until 2030 for 70% of its electricity to come from renewable energy, under a sweeping 2019 state law aimed at reducing fossil fuel emissions.
The state has until 2040 to become emissions free.
New York’s Climate Action Council released a blueprint to reach the lofty targets in December, and the public has through April to submit comments.
The blueprint suggests New York could charge polluters for how many emissions they produce.
Lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry have long argued such proposals would raise consumer bills.
But environmentalists say New York must act now amid rising sea levels threatening infrastructure, decreasing air quality and severe flooding from storms.
The state has a long way to go: renewable energy made up 27% of New York’s electricity generation in 2020. Nuclear represented 29%, while the remainder largely came from oil and gas.
Hochul is facing calls for more COVID-19 relief as New York’s moratorium on residential evictions and foreclosure nears a Jan. 15 expiration date.
Housing advocates are warning that will fuel a flood in evictions, though landlords say court bottlenecks will prevent a surge.
The state’s still struggling to get relief out: New York has spent about half of $2.4 billion in federal rent relief funds meant to help low-and-moderate income tenants.
Meanwhile, advocates for undocumented workers are calling for $3 billion more for the state’s Excluded Workers Fund, which quickly ran out of $2 billion in state funds.
A group of lawmakers, including Sen. Anna Kaplan, want New York to set aside $2.5 billion to help New York repay $9 billion it borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment claims amid the pandemic.
Democrats have proposed bills ranging from universal child care, to a future mandate on childhood COVID-19 vaccination, to legislation preventing landlords from denying a lease renewal under most scenarios.
Criminal justice reform advocates want Democrats to pass legislation to automatically clear the records of many criminal convictions at least three years from sentencing for a misdemeanor, or seven years for a felony.
Minority Republicans, particularly those who have run on being tough-on-crime in swing districts, vow to fight liberal bills that would increase mandates on business owners or weaken crime laws.
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