New York State Assemblymember Sarahana Shrestha last week held a virtual Saugerties town hall to discuss the 2023 legislative session, drawing the curtain on a busy, often productive process.
Shrestha, who represents the 103rd Assembly District, which includes most of Ulster County and some of Dutchess County, said each year’s session is actually a two-year exercise.
“Once a bill is on the floor calendar a challenge it runs into is time,” Shrestha said during the post-session mass call held on Tuesday, August 15. “As we saw this year we’re always running out of time.”
Once a bill is introduced, it appears before committees in both the Senate and Assembly, and must then make it to the floor calendar of each legislative house. If it’s passed by both houses, it is eventually delivered to the governor’s office, where, ideally, it is signed.
During the 2023 session, 896 bills passed both houses of the State Legislature. That’s more than half the number of bills — 1,648 — that passed the Senate; 1,026 passed the Assembly.
“This can sound like a lot, but hundreds of them were chapter amendments…and hundreds of them were extender bills on laws that were in effect but they have to be renewed,” Shrestha said.
Of those 896, 277 have been signed by Governor Kathy Hochul, with 68 more having already reached her office. The majority, 551, have yet to be delivered to the governor. At least those were the figures as of August 15.
“This changes daily, so bills are always moving to the governor’s desk, Shrestha said. “There’s so much that happens in a session, we can’t possibly squeeze in everything.”
Shrestha highlighted some of the bills that were squeezed in, including 17 bills devoted to electoral reforms. Among those bills was A01177, which ensures that untampered absentee ballots are counted regardless of how the envelope is sealed.
“The pandemic was really the first time that the Board of Elections processed a high number of absentee ballots, and the rules were not always clear on when ballots are disqualified,” Shrestha said. “In 2021 we passed a standard process for reviewing absentee ballots, but there was one scenario that people hadn’t thought about…and that was what to do if a voter seals the envelope with tape, paste or some other binding agent or device. Should a local board of election consider that to be a defect? And the answer is no. We don’t want the method of sealing to be a reason for tossing out a ballot if there is no evidence of tampering.”
“Many of us might think this is common sense or logical, but this bill was debated for quite some time,” she said.
Other electoral reform bills passed covered the creation of an early mail voting system (A7632-A), a mandatory training curriculum for poll workers (A268), and the requirement of statewide ballot proposals to be written in plan, easily understood language (A1722-B).
In 2023, the Legislature passed 22 bills devoted to worker protections, including increasing disability benefits in the Workers’ Compensation Law (A2034-A), allowing prosecutors to seek stronger penalties against employers who steal wages from workers (A00154-A), prohibiting employers from requesting logins for employee personal e-mail accounts (A836), and banning agreements that bar employees from taking new jobs in a similar field (A1278-B).
“These agreements are contract clauses that say the employee cannot enter into a similar profession or trade that is in competition with another party,” Shrestha said. “This really puts workers in a bind when they’re trying to get a new job. The federal government is looking into doing this at a national level, but in the meantime we’re hoping to get it going as a statewide protection.”
There were 65 healthcare bills passed in the 2023 session, including requiring SUNY and CUNY campuses to provide access to abortion medication (A1395-C), adding medicine to the list of goods that can be classified as possibly being subject to price gouging (A5653-B), and prohibiting adverse information about medical debt from being submitted to consumer reporting agencies (A6275-A).
“If people are already struggling with their medical debt, we don’t need to hurt their credit score,” Shrestha said, adding that there are already some top healthcare priorities for 2024, including a bill to lower the cost-sharing cap for insulin from $100 to $30; and the New York Health Act, a statewide single-payer universal healthcare that was first introduced in 1992, passed the Assembly — but not the Senate — in the 2015-16 session, and had 86 sponsors in 2021.
“It’s similar to Medicare or the Canadian healthcare system, but better,” said Shrestha. “It’s not a bill that we expect to pass easily, because it’s a huge transformation, but it’s hugely popular.”
The New York Health Act has been revised off-session and already has 61 sponsors for the 2024 session.
“I can’t wait to go back next year and see how to organize on this bill,” said Shrestha.
Fifteen bills devoted to housing security passed in 2023. Shrestha said she hopes more can be done in 2024.
“We did very little to address housing this year despite multiple attempts at big, substantial package deals,” she said. “The real estate lobby in New York is quite possibly the strongest industry and they have too much influence on the state legislature.”
There were 17 bills passed covering criminal justice, including requiring local correctional facilities to provide voter registration forms and notice of voting rights at the time of release (A4009-A), ensuring correctional facilities make food available for purchase to inmates who have specific dietary needs (A5939), and Clean Slate, (A1029-C), the automatic sealing of certain convictions after a certain time if no current charge is pending. There was also A02878-A, which deals with wrongful convictions.
“Our criminal justice system is pretty broken,” Shrestha said. “New York ranks third (nationally) in the number of wrongful convictions.”
Much of that, Shrestha said, is down to the state’s “extremely high” rate of plea bargaining.
“Ninety-eight percent of felony cases in New York are resolved by plea agreements rather than trial,” she said. “Which basically means that New Yorkers have been pleading guilty for decades to crimes they did not commit all because the bail was too expensive to pay, or because the pretrial process was going on for so long that they couldn’t wait any longer and they just wanted things to be resolved. Once you’ve pled guilty it’s very difficult to reverse course, it’s very difficult to prove your innocence. It’s kind of a spiral from there. This bill will start to bring some justice to people who were wrongfully convicted.”
Shrestha said the 2024 legislative session promises to be a busy one.
“The priorities included in this demonstration are a very small sliver of what we’re focusing on next year,” she said. “We have, in reality, hundreds of priorities, touching education, healthcare, immigrant rights, worker protections, a host of issues for which we don’t have a lot of time.”
Shrestha also announced a series of town halls dedicated to energy democracy, with Kingston (Saturday, September 23), Saugerties (Tuesday, October 3), and Woodstock (Thursday, October 5) among them. For more information, visit bit.ly/ad103energy