The 2018 midterm elections flipped the New York State Senate from Republican to Democratic for the first time since 2008. Democrats maintained control of the state Assembly, as they have consistently since 1992. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo won his 2018 re-election, making New York, with its state Senate, Assembly and gubernatorial office all controlled by Democrats, one of 14 “Democratic trifecta” states in the United States. These widespread victories granted New York Democrats unique ease with which to enact legislation in 2019. Representatives certainly capitalized on the opportunity: 935 bills passed in the Assembly and Senate, the most in a single legislative term in a decade.
Here is a rundown of a few important bills signed into law in 2019, and some more to look out for as the 2020 legislative session begins.
The state legislature passed multiple gun control reform bills in New York. Among these is a law requiring a 30-day waiting period for any individual not immediately approved by the federal background check system when purchasing a gun. When an individual attempts to purchase a weapon, the federal background check instantly assigns them a status of either “proceed,” “deny” or “delayed.” The new law, which went into effect last March, will apply to those who receive the “delayed” result. The previous law required only a three day waiting period for “delayed” purchasers, making it possible for a gun to be sold before a full background check had been completed.
Another new law banned bump stocks—an attachment that can be put on a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing speed. Cuomo hopes to continue to strengthen the state’s gun control laws in 2020 by barring those who have committed a serious crime outside of New York from obtaining a New York gun license (USA Today, “Gun control in New York: these new measures just became law.” 07.30.2019).
The Reproductive Health Act was signed into law in January 2019. Democrats have long pushed to pass the act, but it was blocked by Senate Republicans until the 2018 midterms flipped the state Senate. Prior to the act, the previous law dating back to 1970 considered late-term abortions (after 24 weeks) homicide. The Act removed abortion from the penal code and legalized late-term abortions in the case of fetal unviability or a threat to the mother’s life. Additionally, the act allows all health-care practitioners to perform abortions, while the previous law allowed only physicians to perform abortions. This change will make abortions more easily accessible throughout the state (USA Today, “Abortion laws in New York: How they changed with the Reproductive Health Act,” 01.22.2019).
In 2019, New York became one of 37 states that allows early voting. New York voters may now vote up to nine days prior to the Sunday before Election Day. The law aims to increase voter participation by giving those who cannot make it to the voting booths on Election Day an opportunity to vote. This took effect for the first time in the November 2019 elections.
A bill closing loopholes in campaign finance practices was also passed. Previously, big donors could avoid campaign finance laws by setting up multiple limited liability corporations (LLCs) and donating from each one. The new law will require LLCs to disclose their ownership before donations are made, and will limit donations to $5,000, the donation limit for corporations.
Legislation allowing residents to vote by mail and register to vote at polling stations passed as well. These two changes will not be implemented until 2021 at the earliest, as they require amendments to the New York State Constitution. Cuomo proposed a law making Election Day a state holiday, but it did not receive enough votes to pass.
A new law consolidates the two New York primaries into one date. Previously, New York state primaries and federal primaries fell on different dates, forcing voters to turn out at the polls twice. This adjustment will save voters time and the state $25 million. It will also allow 16 and 17 year olds to register to vote prior to turning 18. The goal of this law is to increase young voter participation, as young voters will already be in the system when they become eligible to vote.
In 2020, Cuomo hopes to enact a law requiring an automatic recount in all state elections where the margin is less than 0.2 percent of all votes cast (USA Today, “Voting in New York: Five major changes are coming soon,” 01.11.2019).
Cuomo and the state legislature were successful in decriminalizing marijuana. The previous law allowed those in possession of marijuana to be fined and charged with a misdemeanor as soon as it was burned or visible in public. Under the new law, those in possession of any amount of marijuana under an ounce will be fined, with a maximum of $50. Additionally, people with low-level misdemeanor marijuana convictions will have them expunged from their records. Cuomo failed to pass a bill through the Senate legalizing marijuana completely in 2019, but legalization remains on the governor’s agenda for 2020 (USA Today, “Why legalizing marijuana in New York failed, but decriminalizing it passed,” 6.21.2019)
Dreamers, or undocumented immigrants who come to the United States as children, are now eligible for New York tuition aid programs, provided they attend high school in New York. Democratic legislators were previously unable to pass this New York State Dream Act in the majority-Republican senate.
Republican lawmakers criticized the Act as “unfair,” citing the many U.S. citizens who struggle to pay college tuition. All 40 Democrats in the state Senate voted to pass the bill, while all 20 Republican senators who were present voted against it. Three Republican senators were absent (USA Today, “New York to make college tuition aid available to DREAMers,” 1.23.2019).