New York lawmakers finally settled on an overdue deal for the state's new budget on Thursday, one that will include a gas tax holiday for most of this year.
The budget, as introduced in the Assembly, would suspend portions of the state's gas tax for both unleaded and diesel from June 1 to Dec. 31. The state now gets about 33 cents a gallon, and the deal would cover about 16 cents of that.
Also included in the budget is a provision extending the popular pandemic-era alcohol-to-go rules, letting restaurants sell booze for take-out or delivery for the next three years as long as it's accompanied by a "substantial food item."
The state budget was due by law to be completed April 1, but intense negotiations over a range of policy changes added to the bill complicated matters.
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Legislators had to pass an "extender" to ensure state employees would continue to get paid; that was due to expire Thursday.
It was still not clear as of midday Thursday when legislators would vote. There are also multiple additional bills still pending, which may bring certainty to hot-button issues like bail reform and massive subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.
“We will go back in conferences, there’s still just a few things that have to be ironed out,” Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, said. “But you know, everybody will start voting sometime this evening.”
Stewart-Cousins said the “hope” is wrapping up work on the budget Friday.
Lawmakers could temporarily suspend gasoline taxes, allow to-go sales of alcoholic beverages and under budget bills released by legislative leaders Thursday. Liquor and wine would be available for take-out and delivery for three years, reviving a practice that became popular in New York during the pandemic.
For the bail law, Stewart-Cousins said Thursday that lawmakers are poised to make changes to how the law applies to “repeat offenders,” but didn't immediately offer specifics.
She said arraignments have been taking longer amid the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concern about whether certain individuals with repeat offenses or violations are always being subject to bail.
“So what we have tried to do is to make it very clear that even if you haven't been arraigned, if you are still in court today, you’re still in court tomorrow, you don’t have to wait to be arraigned to be classified as a repeat offender,” she said.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups representing New Yorkers with mental illness chastised elected officials for hashing out a potential expansion of a court-ordered treatment law behind the scenes, without a chance for public input.
Thousands of New York residents are treated each year under Kendra’s Law, which requires those facing serious mental illness to attend outpatient psychiatric treatment as a condition for living in the community. Patients who don't comply face up to 72 hours in a state facility.
New York passed that law on a trial basis in 1999, when 32-year-old Kendra Webdale was pushed in front of a subway train by a man living with untreated schizophrenia. The law is set to expire June 30 unless legislators grant yet another extension.
The effort to tweak the law now comes in the wake of the death of another woman pushed in front of a subway train in January — 40-year-old Michelle Alyssa Go of New York, who was of Asian descent and was known for volunteering to help homeless and other vulnerable communities. Police said the man accused of fatally shoving her was homeless and had a history of “emotionally disturbed encounters.”
The specifics of what the latest proposal would be is unclear, but advocates and lobbyists who are following negotiations in Albany say they're worried that Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and lawmakers could end up allowing people with mental illness to be held involuntarily in hospitals indefinitely under orders that could be renewed without court proceedings.
Ruth Lowenkron, director of the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said she's concerned that lawmakers will weaken due process protections under Kendra's Law and expand it to New Yorkers living with disabilities or people who lack housing.
“This over-reliance on criminalizing mental health and on involuntarily commitment creates more trauma for individuals with mental health,” Lowenkron said.
“The proposal in New York is grossly out of depth with the law around the country,” Ira Burnim, legal director of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., said.
Lowenkron and Burnim said they support expanding Kendra's Law for another five years, but said lawmakers should focus on spending more money on voluntary, community-based services.
Sen. George Borrello, a Republican of Central New York who has sponsored a bill to expand Kendra's Law, said he's unaware of the specifics of budget negotiations and would rather have lawmakers hold a separate debate on the bill.
But he said he's frustrated by advocates' opposition.
“We need to give our healthcare professionals the ability to hold people longer so they can evaluate them if someone is in violation” of their assisted outpatient treatment order, Borrello said.
He said Go's death has spurred calls for reform of Kendra's Law, which he said isn't used enough.
“Seventy-two hours is not enough to make sure someone is stabilized, and if you're not able to care for yourself and provide basics like food, shelter that should be considered evidence that you are a danger to yourself and others and you should be held for that reason,” Borrello said.
Hochul and legislative leaders have been negotiating for months on the budget, which has often served as a vehicle for passage of major policy legislation over the decades. Budget negotiations in New York once stretched into summer months and were shortened under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration — although last year’s budget passed April 7.