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Five Closely Watched Bills Passed by State Lawmakers in Albany This Week
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Empty seats at the New York State Assembly
New York State Assembly
Credit: New York NOW

The state Legislature is expected to wrap up a rare July session Thursday after passing a series of far-reaching bills, like measures to make voter registration easier and roll back liability protections for nursing homes enacted at the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

Democrats, who hold the majority in both chambers of the Legislature, returned to Albany this week to wrap up some loose ends and approve several long-sought measures.

Each bill will now be sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature. Here's five approved, out of dozens, that were closely watched by stakeholders.

1. Automatic voter registration, or the closest thing to it

Lawmakers approved a bill that will allow New York residents to easily register to vote when they interact with a government agency, including several state, county, and city agencies.

That would include the DMV, the state Department of Health, the state Department of Labor, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the New York City Housing Authority, and social services agencies in counties and cities.

Residents will be allowed to opt out of automatic voter registration, but those agencies would use information collected about the individual to create an easy registration process.

The state Board of Elections will promulgate rules to implement the law, which would take effect in January 2023.

"The passage of automatic voter registration means adding one million new voters to the rolls, including those New Yorkers historically most subject to disenfranchisement. Everyone deserves their say in our future,” said Perry Grossman, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union.

2. Rollback of legal protections for nursing homes during the COVID-19 crisis

Legislation was passed this week to narrow a set of protections granted to nursing homes and health care facilities in March, just as the COVID-19 crisis was getting underway in New York.

In March, the Legislature approved a bill that provided legal immunity for nursing homes and health care facilities in most cases, except for claims of gross negligence, misconduct, or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The bill approved this week would narrow the scope of those legal protections.

Facilities and medical professionals would only continue to receive liability protection when they’re providing direct care related to the diagnosis or treatment of COVID-19. In other words, the legal protections would be eliminated unless the circumstances relate directly to COVID-19.

Beth Finkel, director of the AARP in New York, called on lawmakers to go even further and repeal the immunity protections completely.

“Nothing short of a complete and retroactive appeal is acceptable,” Finkel said. “Not only would that restore the right of residents and their families to seek justice, but it would incentivize facilities to provide proper care going forward.”

Democrats, meanwhile, will hold a pair of hearings next month on the handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes, and very well may introduce additional legislation to target providers suspected to have mismanaged their residents.

3. Pause on facial recognition software in schools

After a school district in Niagara County rolled out the use of facial recognition technology this year, the state Legislature this week approved a bill to place a moratorium on use of the software and study its use.

The Lockport City School District caused a stir when it said it would use facial recognition software to track individuals coming into schools.

Now, no school district will be allowed to use the technology until the summer of 2022 at the earliest unless the state Education Department says differently. The agency will be tasked, in the meantime, with reviewing the pros and cons of the software.

Civil right groups, which oppose the use of facial recognition in schools, cheered the bill after it was passed this week.

“Schools should be an environment where children can learn and grow, and the presence of a flawed and racially-biased system constantly monitoring students makes that impossible,” said Stefanie Coyle from the New York Civil Liberties Union.

4. Closing the ‘fracking waste loophole’

Environmental advocates have called on the state, in recent years, to formally ban the practice of allowing waste from hydraulic fracturing to be dumped in New York state. The state has said it hasn’t happened, while advocates have said otherwise.

Lawmakers, this week, approved a bill to classify waste from hydraulic fracturing, which is banned in New York but legal in neighboring Pennsylvania, as hazardous waste.

That means waste from fracking, if found to be hazardous, will no longer be allowed in landfills in New York unless it’s handled properly. That waste was previously accepted by a handful of landfills in New York without any special precautions, according to advocates.

Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, has tracked the dumping of fracking waste in New York for the last several years.

“Oil and gas waste contains hundreds of known and suspected carcinogenic chemicals, as well as often high levels of radioactivity,” Moran said. “It has been wrong for the industry to receive special treatment by exempting its waste from being classified as hazardous.”

5. Absentee voting for the general election in November

If you’re uncertain about visiting a polling place in November because of COVID-19, you’ll likely be able to vote by mail under a bill approved this week by state lawmakers.

The legislation would allow individuals to apply for an absentee ballot for the general election if they feel voting in person would put them at risk of contracting the virus. That was allowed in this year’s primary elections in June through an executive order signed by Cuomo.

Voting by absentee is usually limited to situations where an individual can’t make it to their registered polling place. The Legislature has changed the rules for voting absentee over the years, but hasn’t gone as far as allowing individuals to vote entirely by mail without limits.

BONUS:Constitutional amendment on New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission

Lawmakers cast the first vote, out of three required, to amend the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission, which will draw the state’s electoral districts following this year’s census.

The commission, first created in 2014, hasn’t yet been completely formed, and will complete its first redistricting in 2022. Districts were previously drawn by the Legislature.

Because the commission was created through an amendment to the state constitution, the changes proposed by lawmakers will have to be approved the same way. That means the Legislature will have to approve the measure again next year and send it to voters.

Critics of the measure have said the changes would diminish the power of the minority parties in the state Legislature, which is currently controlled by Democrats.

One change, for example, would allow a plan of the redistricting commission to be approved by 60% of Senate members, down from two-thirds. Democrats have a majority in the chamber, but don’t hold two-thirds of seats, so the change would essentially disempower Republicans.

Republicans criticized the amendment on the floor of both the Senate and Assembly Thursday.

“It’s clear to me that these majorities are not about fairness, they’re not about independent redistricting, and it’s clear that it’s an attempt to control the whole process to draw the minority conferences out of existence,” said State Sen. Tom O’Mara, R-Chemung.

Constitutional amendments are approved by the Legislature and voters, but do not require action from the governor. That means Cuomo won’t have a say in changes to the redistricting commission.

The Legislature approved several other bills this week as well, including a ban on certain chemicals in food packaging, a measure to prevent ICE arrests at state courthouses, and more.

Lawmakers haven’t ruled out another return to Albany this year, but also took action on several bills, and nominations from Cuomo, that would signal an end to this year’s scheduled legislative session.