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Capitol Watch: Crunch time for legal pot, immigrant licenses

June 15, 2019

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — In New York state government news, lawmakers are wrapping up the 2019 legislative session with big decisions on proposals to legalize recreational marijuana and authorize driver’s licenses for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally.

The Democrat-led Senate and Assembly plan to adjourn their six-month session Wednesday.

Supporters of legal marijuana and granting the licenses are optimistic their efforts will pay off, but opposition could still doom both measures.

Other high-profile bills awaiting action in the session’s final days include one that would combat climate change and boost renewable energy and another that would legalize paid surrogacy, in which a woman is compensated for carrying another couple or individual’s child.

Here’s a look at the items on the agenda as lawmakers work toward adjournment:

MARIJUANA: Many lawmakers began the session in January predicting that efforts to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana for adults would dominate the session. That didn’t quite happen, as supporters and advocates had to fight to keep the issue on the legislature’s front burner.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, inserted his plan to regulate legal pot in his state budget proposal, only to remove it when lawmakers couldn’t agree on the details. Then a legalization effort fell flat in neighboring New Jersey, sapping some of the momentum in New York. Cuomo questioned whether the Senate had the votes to pass any legalization bill and predicted it wouldn’t pass.

In recent days and weeks, however, there have been signs of progress on the legislation. Democratic lawmakers introduced a new measure, and lawmakers huddled to review the plan this week. Now, proponents are optimistic a compromise could be voted on before adjournment.

“We’re going to try,” Sen. Liz Krueger, the sponsor of the Senate’s legalization bill, said on public radio last week. “We’ll see whether we can actually get this done.”

Lawmakers have accused Cuomo of not doing enough to get the bill passed, an assertion the governor denies.

LICENSES FOR IMMIGRANTS: New York would be the 13th state to authorize driver’s licenses for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally under a bill that is a top priority for immigrant advocates and many progressive groups.

The Assembly passed the bill Wednesday but the Senate has always been seen as the big challenge. Democrats wrested Senate control from Republicans in last year’s elections, winning some districts upstate and in the suburbs where support for the driver’s license bill could be a political liability.

Senate leaders say they’re still working to shore up support for the bill and that a vote is still possible. Cuomo has vowed to sign the bill if it makes it to his desk.

SURROGACY: The Senate approved legislation to lift the state’s ban on paid surrogacy Tuesday but the bill hasn’t been scheduled for a vote in the Assembly.

Currently, only New York and Michigan make it illegal for a couple or individual to pay a woman for carrying their child. Many same-sex couples and infertile couples and individuals have complained that they are forced to find surrogates in other states in order to have a child.

Opponents, including feminist icon Gloria Steinem, argue that legalizing paid surrogacy would exploit low-income women by commercializing their reproductive systems.

Cuomo has called the repeal of the ban one of his top priorities for the end of session.

CLIMATE CHANGE: A bill known as the Climate and Community Protection Act would aim for a 100% reduction in man-made carbon emissions in the state by 2050. It would also set aside funding for clean-energy jobs and workforce training, along with investments in areas of the state hit especially hard by rising sea levels, floods or other effects of extreme weather.

Cuomo has used executive orders to advance many of his own climate change proposals. He said this week that he objects to a provision in the act that specifies how state funds would be invested in communities hit hard by climate change. Instead, he said, he favors giving state leaders more flexibility in deciding how to spend the money. On Friday, he said he’s optimistic he can reach a compromise with lawmakers.

More than 300 New Yorkers in favor of the bill staged a protest outside Cuomo’s office calling on him to embrace the bill.

“We need to achieve 100% renewable energy and zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to avoid catastrophe,” said Liz Moran, environmental policy director at the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Any delay to pass the strongest climate legislation puts New York’s future in jeopardy.”

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