ALBANY — Legalized marijuana, sports betting and new traffic tolls in Manhattan are just some of the measures Democrats believe they can push through the New York Legislature in a 2019 session that begins this week with their party in control of both chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in a decade.
Lawmakers swept into office in a backlash against President Donald Trump’s plan to fight back against his policies on immigration, the environment and health care, while also seeking to catch up to neighbors such as Massachusetts, which has already legalized marijuana, and New Jersey, which has approved sports betting.
Other items on their wish list include expanding state health care programs, codifying protections for abortion rights, reforming antiquated voting laws and eliminating cash bail for criminal defendants.
“People will finally get the government they have been voting for for so many years,” predicted Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, of Yonkers, the first woman to lead a legislative body in New York.
First up when lawmakers convene Wednesday may be the Child Victims Act, a long-debated bill that would extend the statute of limitations for child molestation and create a one-year window for victims to sue over old abuse claims now barred by the statute of limitations. The measure has repeatedly passed the state Assembly only to be blocked by the Senate’s Republican leaders under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church.
“It’s been obstructed for such a long time, but I believe it will be done within the first 30 days of the session,” said Gary Greenberg, a leading supporter of the Child Victims Act who created a political action committee to support candidates who backed the bill.
But having a solidly Democratic majority doesn’t mean there is consensus on everything.
While there’s broad support for legalizing marijuana, for example, lawmakers don’t yet have agreement on several thorny details, such as how many retail establishments to permit or how high the taxes on the product will be.
Cuomo wants to include marijuana legalization in the state budget, due by April 1, a remarkably short time frame for such a complicated issue. Regardless of what form legalization may take, many lawmakers want a phased-in approach similar to the one adopted in Massachusetts, where personal possession and cultivation of marijuana were legalized long before the first retail shops were allowed to open.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and many members of his chamber want lawmakers to also consider expunging the criminal records of thousands of people who were arrested for using the drug — a proposal that could complicate legalization even further. Officials say they also want to examine the experiences of Massachusetts, California, Colorado and other states that have already legalized the drug.
“I don’t support people smoking cannabis, but here’s a fact: they do and they do in big numbers,” said Buffalo Democrat Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Assembly’s incoming majority leader and a key proponent of legalization.
Approving new congestion tolls for New York City will be just as politically challenging. Supporters, including environmental groups, transit advocates and even local chambers of commerce, argue that new surcharges on vehicles entering the busiest parts of Manhattan are the best way to discourage driving while raising billions to repair and modernize the city’s subways. Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the idea. But the details — how high will the toll be, will local commuters and small businesses get a discount? — could undermine the push.
Riders and transportation advocates say Albany must find some way to fund subway repairs or else the nation’s largest city will have to live with a system that has fallen far behind its peers in other global cities.
“New York City’s subways are falling apart. Service disruptions and frequent delays have become all too common, contributing to what has become a daily nightmare for many of New York City’s riders,” said Jaqi Cohen, of the Stranghangers Campaign, a coalition of subway riders.
National politics and the Trump administration will continue to play an outsized role in Albany. Cuomo, fresh off a convincing re-election win in November, has offered up New York and his progressive agenda for 2019 as a beacon for the rest of the nation to follow. His soaring rhetoric and decision to deliver his third inaugural address on Ellis Island have done little to squelch speculation about whether he will run for president in 2020.
“It is New York’s duty, it is New York’s destiny, once again, to bring the light that leads the way through the darkness,” the 61-year-old Cuomo said during his inaugural address. “To show the nation the way forward and upward. And we will.”
The six-month session is likely to test Cuomo’s certitude and the sincerity of lawmakers who now have the chance to enact policies they’ve spent years talking about. Last year’s elections sent a wave of new, liberal lawmakers from New York City to Albany, where they may butt heads with Capitol insiders and more moderate lawmakers from the suburbs and upstate. Cuomo may find himself in the middle, forced to balance the ambitions of liberals with the realities of governing a state with 20 million people and a $168 billion budget.
And don’t forget the Republicans, who promise to do what they can to force the governing party to the bargaining table. That includes GOP senators still smarting from November’s defeat.
“Even though Senate Republicans now make up the minority of this chamber,” said Sen. John Flanagan, the Republican minority leader, “Our voice on issues important to hardworking middle-class families will be more critical than ever.”
RAY BROOK — Julia Goren may only be in her third week on the job at the Adirondack Council, but the Adirondack Mountain Club veteran is well versed in Blue Line issues. And it’s that experience that led to her taking over the Council’s long-term vision plan.
The Adirondack Council — a green group based in Elizabethtown — is nearing the end of its 30-year-old Vision 2020 plan, and has brought Goren on to oversee a multi-year Vision Plan for 2050. Goren says that she’s still settling in, but that the Adirondacks are facing different problems than the park faced in 1990.
“The Vision project is a reboot of the Vision 2020 project, which is something the Council undertook in the ‘80s to envision what a successful Adirondack Park would look like in 2020,” she said. “And now, of course, 2020 is coming up. So it’s time to start again; it’s time to do that long-range visioning for what a successful Adirondack Park will look like in 2050.”
The Council said in a press release in September that “The Council’s 2020 Vision Plan is an illustrated, four-volume series of studies on how to preserve the park’s rich biological diversity; protect and expand its motor-free wilderness areas; realize the recreational potential of non-wilderness public forests; and better manage its commercial timberlands and other private properties.”
Goren said her first few weeks have been occupied by meetings and envisioning what sort of issues the park will face over the next 30 years.
Goren was previously employed by the Adirondack Mountain Club for almost a decade and a half, and rose through the ranks to head ADK’s Summit Steward program and then the club’s education programs.
“I’ve been here in the Adirondack Park working for 14 years, and so much of my work with the summit stewards and the Adirondack Mountain Club was really dealing with the day-to-day,” she said. “That was really important and really satisfying, but it’s also really exciting to look ahead and think about the big picture and think about not just ‘What are the realities on the ground right now?’ but ‘What could it be?’ and think outside the box.”
The 2020 Vision plan was four printed volumes, but the Council said this time around it would use digital technology to make the plan easier to understand and share. Goren said that although both the 2020 and 2050 plans look forward, they are each set in the period in which they are created.
“The 2020 plan was very much a product of its time,” she said. “The plan of the ’80s was very much a reflection of what the concerns were at that time. One of the things that is really exciting about that plan, if you dive into it, is that it proposed lands to be protected. When you look back, you say ‘Oh wow, two-thirds of that land that was recommended for protection has been preserved.’ And that’s really cool.
“When you look at the challenges of the Adirondack Park as we look forward, they’re really different challenges. Things like invasive species and climate change, those are things that are not going to be prevented by buying up a parcel of land and having it go to the state. And so it requires kind of fundamentally rethinking the kinds of solutions that can be offered.”
Goren said one of the first things she’s done is try and figure out exactly what the challenges the Adirondack Park is facing. She said she’s trying to strike a balance between keeping things manageable while not getting bogged down in minutiae.
“There are lots and lots of different challenges, but I don’t want to go too huge and not be able to complete something in a timely manner, and I don’t want to be too small because it’s a project that should be aspirational, it should be useful,” she said. “On the macro scale, I think that the Adirondack Council has been really good at recommending policies and pushing those through; things like acid rain. But I think with some of those bigger challenges, we want to look at what are the things that make the Adirondack Park unique; we want to promote the ecological integrity and character.
“There are lots of different ways to look at climate change in the Adirondack Park. One of the ways we can talk about it is carbon sequestration; this is a tremendous place for carbon sequestration. So we want to look at what are the ways we can help support things like sequestration while supporting working forests.”
Goren said she also wants to work in concert with other groups who are working on long-term planning within the Blue Line.
“There are a couple other projects that are doing similar kinds of work, like the Adirondack Futures project and the Common Ground Alliance, and those have been consensus-based processes and those have been tremendously successful and I certainly don’t want to try and replicate the kind of work they’ve done,” she said. “So the idea with this project is to be science driven and science based and to look to some of the successes of those projects, but not to replicate them.”
QUEENSBURY — A local church sign that read “Heaven has a strict immgration (sic) policy. Hell has open borders” fired up a small protest Sunday, though the church says the sign’s meaning was misinterpreted.
Six people stood with signs outside of the Queensbury Church of Christ on Aviation Road as Sunday’s services were wrapping up. They were there to protest the message on the sign, which has since been replaced with others like, “Tweet others as you want to be tweeted” and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Kailey Strafford, of Queensbury, organized the protest on Facebook after she saw the sign while home from college. Strafford said she felt very upset by it.
On the social media site, Strafford said she talked to members of the church about it “and I was told that ‘illegals’ should be here, that Mexican culture is different from the culture of the United States, and that the sign has nothing to do with immigration, it is a play on words.”
She still felt it was important to protest and “stand up for the rights of immigrants, undocumented and documented, and to denounce this hateful rhetoric.”
Strafford carried a megaphone outside the church Sunday, shouting things like, “This is a nation built on immigration.”
Five others joined her, including the organizer of the Glens Falls Women’s March, Enid Mastrianni.
“I was appalled when I saw the sign,” she said, adding that it was especially a Christian church’s responsibility to welcome strangers.
Dan Curry, of Clifton Park, is a history teacher and re-enactor. He came dressed as an immigrant from the late 1800s or early 1900s while the group discussed how Italian and Irish immigrants were unwanted when they came to the United States, and compared their migration to how President Donald Trump wants to build a wall at the U.S. and Mexico border.
When a Post-Star reporter walked up to the church to try and speak with someone there, a man, who refused to identify himself, closed the door on her, then opened it and said he would not talk and had been in discussion with police.
When the reporter asked if the man was a representative of the church, he said, “You’re trespassing. I’ll call the police. Please leave.”
Logan Robertson, outreach minister for the church, answered the phone there later Sunday afternoon and was not aware that someone had asked the reporter to leave.
He said the message on the sign had been taken out of context and was referencing a part of the Book of Matthew that says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
“(It had) nothing to do with immigration,” Robertson said. “Nothing to do with immigration. ... Our focus is scriptural and spiritual.”
Robertson also said that an immigrant had attended services that Sunday, and the church has no problems nor anything to do with immigration policy.
JERUSALEM — U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until Islamic State militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, a top White House aide said Sunday, signaling a pause to a withdrawal abruptly announced last month and initially expected to be completed within weeks.
While U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said there is now no timetable, President Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops, though he said “we won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone.”
Trump had said in his Dec. 19 withdrawal announcement that U.S. forces “have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” and added in a video posted to Twitter, “Now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”
Bolton said in Israel that the U.S. would pull out only after its troops had rooted out what’s left of IS in Syria and after the administration had reached an agreement with Turkey to protect Kurdish militias who have fought alongside Americans against the extremists.
In Washington, Trump told reporters at the White House that “we are pulling back in Syria. We’re going to be removing our troops. I never said we’re doing it that quickly.” But in that Dec. 19 video, the president had said of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria: “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
And officials said at the time that while many details were yet to be finalized, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.
“I think this is the reality setting in that you got to plan this out,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “the bottom line here is we want to make sure we get this right, that ISIS doesn’t come back. And I applaud the president for re-evaluating what he’s doing. ... He has a goal in mind of reducing our presence. I share that goal. Let’s just do it smartly.”
Trump’s decision last month drew widespread criticism from allies, led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and raised fears over clearing the way for a Turkish assault on the Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
‘There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
He was to be in Turkey on Monday, accompanied by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, for talks with government officials.
Bolton said the U.S. wants its Kurdish allies in Syria protected from any planned Turkish offensive — a warning to be delivered to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States,” Bolton said. He said that in upcoming meetings with Turkish officials, he will seek “to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain.”
Bolton said Trump has made clear he would not allow Turkey to kill the Kurds. “That’s what the president said, the ones that fought with us,” Bolton said.
Bolton said the U.S. has asked the Kurds to “stand fast now” and refrain from seeking protection from Russia or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “I think they know who their friends are,” he added, speaking of the Kurds.
Jim Jeffrey, the special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, is to travel to Syria this coming week in an effort to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman called allegations that his country planned to attack the U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria “irrational” and said Turkey was fighting terrorism for national security.
In comments carried by the official Anadolu news agency, Ibrahim Kalin said the Kurdish fighters oppressed Syrian Kurds and pursued a separatist agenda under the guise of fighting IS. “That a terror organization cannot be allied with the U.S. is self-evident,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told ABC’s “This Week” that the conditions raised by Bolton were “obvious,” and Smith criticized the conflicting messages from the Trump administration.
“We don’t want ISIS to rise again and be a transnational terrorist threat and we don’t want our allies, the Kurds, to be slaughtered by Erdogan in Turkey,” said Smith, D-Wash.
Bolton said U.S. troops would remain at the critical area of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region. He defended the legal basis for the deployment, saying it’s justified by the president’s constitutional authority.
The U.S. is also seeking a “satisfactory disposition” for roughly 800 IS prisoners held by the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, Bolton said, adding talks were ongoing with European and regional partners about the issue.
Bolton was to have dinner with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Sunday to discuss the pace of the U.S. drawdown, American troop levels in the region, and the U.S. commitment to push back on Iranian regional expansionism.
Bolton was expected to explain that some U.S. troops based in Syria to fight IS will shift to Iraq with the same mission and that the al-Tanf base would remain.
Bolton also was to convey the message that the United States is “very supportive” of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, according to a senior administration official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss Bolton’s plans before the meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.