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New York Senate turns left

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The New York State Legislature wrapped up its work for the year on June 21, bringing an end to a session that is being called historic. When Democrats took firm control of the senate in January, the Legislature and the governor set out a progressive agenda, much of which was achieved.

One of the biggest changes is a new law that will allow undocumented immigrants to receive state-issued driver’s licenses. Sen. Pete Harckham said on the Senate floor that the bill was not about immigration, but about common sense. He said immigrants in suburban and rural areas are already driving because they have to get to work, bring kids to school and attend medical appointments. The new law, he said, ensures that those immigrants will now be required to take a driving test, acquire car insurance and follow all the rules other drivers follow.

Many residents expressed opposition to the legislation. Some county clerks, who are elected by voters, have said they will not issue those licenses to undocumented immigrants. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis said on Fox News, “We’ve continued this trend in New York State of putting illegal immigrants, unfortunately, before citizens who have elected us,” she said. The vote in the Senate was 33 to 29. The bill would not have made it to the Senate floor in the previous Senate, and Malliotakis’ view would have prevailed.

The Legislature also passed significant voting reforms this session. This year, New York State joined 37 other states in allowing early voting. Starting this November, New York voters will have the opportunity to vote early on nine days before every election. The state allocated $10 million to pay for the cost of the early voting, so counties would not have to.

The Legislature also passed online voter registration beginning in 2021, and approved a constitutional amendment that may eventually allow for same-day voter registration. The Legislature also voted to close the so-called LLC loophole, which allowed limited liability corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions to candidates.

Regarding action on climate change and the environment, the legislature came to an agreement with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and passed the Community and Climate Protection Act, which analysts say is the most ambitious climate agenda in the country. It calls for the production of electricity in the state to be 100% carbon free by 2040. The state’s entire economy must produce net-zero fossil fuel emissions by 2050.

“As we transition to a net-zero emissions future, we will continue to bolster green job initiatives to ensure that all New Yorkers share in the benefits of a clean energy economy,” Cuomo said. “This comprehensive package will lead the way to a cleaner and greener future for generations to come.”

Some of the legislation was very unpopular with the other side of the aisle. The legislation that will end cash-bail for 90% of people in the criminal justice system has been attacked by prosecutors as reckless. Sullivan County District Attorney Jim Farrell said it would allow criminals who commit serious crimes to walk free.

Supporters say it was needed to end the two-tiered system of justice in New York State, in which wealthier residents who can afford bail are allowed their freedom as their case works its way through the courts, while poorer residents sit in jail because they can’t afford bail.

The most important bills passed by the Senate and Assembly and signed by the governor addressed climate change, the democratic process and helping the most vulnerable. Many observers, including the governor, credit the surge in progressive voters turning out in record numbers against President Donald Trump’s norm-breaking behavior and policies. Voter turnout for the midterms in 2018 across the country was about 50% of all eligible voters, which was the highest in more than 100 years.

Predictions for the 2020 general election are all over the map in terms of which party has the upper hand. It’s possible that Trump may win a second term, but it’s likely that the outrage that drove voters to the polls in the last election will still be there next year.

After all, separating children from their families at the border creates an outrage that will last a while. Saying that people who march with swastikas are “good” creates an outrage that endures. A campaign to pass laws that throw millions off of their health insurance and give tax breaks to the wealthiest produces an outrage that stays with people.

The outrage that turned the New York State Senate blue in 2018 is likely to be on display again in 2020.

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