Pot legalization goes up in smoke as budget talks advance

Associated Press In this Feb. 14, 2019, file photo, cannabis seedlings grow under lights as part of a research project by students in the new cannabis minor program at SUNY Morrisville.

ALBANY — The push to legalize marijuana by latching the measure to state budget legislation has apparently faltered, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday.

Cuomo suggested there was "too little time" to revive the proposal in budget bills.

But one upstate lawmaker, Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, who opposes legalization, said he couldn't rule out that proponents would renew the proposal before a final budget is completed. The wrap up of the spending plan could come Wednesday, the first day of the state's 2020-2021 fiscal year.

Due to the spread of COVID-19 virus, with five of their colleagues now infected, lawmakers for the first time authorized remote voting on bills at the Capitol.

If Cuomo's effort to legalize cannabis is snagged, it will be the second consecutive year he could not build sufficient support for the proposal. However, the legislative session is slated to continue until mid-June. But the virus threat could complicate the Albany calendar

One of the prime strategists in the effort to block the marijuana legislation, Kevin Sabet, president of a national advocacy group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said keeping the measure out of the budget "makes a lot of sense" in the state that is the epicenter of the nation's coronavirus epidemic.

"We would have more vaping illnesses which leave people vulnerable to the symptoms of COVID-19," Sabet said. "We certainly don't need lines around the state of people trying to get marijuana from the state because they are bored."

The New York Parent Teacher Association, the state Sheriffs' Association and the Association of Chiefs of Police all rallied opposition to the measure, while some criminal justice reform groups sided with legalization activists.

On another front, Cuomo was using the budget legislation as part of his effort to close two state prisons. That initiative has drawn vigorous opposition from Sen. Betty Little, R, Queensbury, and Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh.

They argue the state should move away from a practice known as double-bunking in medium-security prisons — having two inmates share one cell — before more prisons are closed.

Little and Jones say they also question having lawmakers vote on the measure before they have been advised which specific prisons would be mothballed by the Cuomo administration.

Complicating the budget decisions is the fact state revenues swooned after the pandemic hit New York in early March, with tens of thousands of businesses abruptly being forced to close in mid-month in an effort to reduce workplace densities and stop the spread.

Cuomo said the ensuing layoffs unleashed an avalanche of applications for jobless benefits, with some 1.2 million calls coming Monday into the state Department of Labor. For those who could not get connect with a state service agent, the state is making the benefits retroactive to the time the person lost employment due the virus-driven economic downturn.

The state's revenue shortfall was estimated last week to be as high as $15 billion.

The governor has vowed to impose austerity measures, a move that has ignited tensions among advocates for the education and health care lobbies. "It's a tough reality," Cuomo said Tuesday.

It remained unclear late Tuesday if lawmakers would be willing to go along with Cuomo's argument to restore discretion to judges in bail matters. Prosecutors and police groups were strenuously pushing for lawmakers to undo some of the bail changes made last year, while criminal justice reformers were insisting the current law should remain intact.

The bail modifications have resulted in sharp drops in county jail populations throughout the upstate and downstate regions, with far fewer pre-trial detainees now behind bars.

Morinello said he is planning to vote against the spending plan for several reasons, including the fact the legislation will result in a substantial increase to the cost of servicing the state's indebtedness.

"The debt has nothing to do with the coronavirus," he said. "We need to take a much more conservative approach to spending."

Cuomo has proposed a new domestic terrorism law to discourage attacks motivated by bias. He has also advanced a measure that would accelerate approvals of energy generation projects involving renewable sources such as solar arrays and wind turbines by limiting the oversight of local governments.

The Association of Counties and the Association of Towns have both registered opposition to the latter proposal.

Lawmakers were also considering Cuomo's proposal to make changes to the Medicaid program, which provides health insurance coverage to 6 million low-income New Yorker.

While last week's $2 trillion federal stimulus package would send several billion dollars to New York, Cuomo has argued the sum is insufficient and fails to recognize that New York has emerged as the epicenter of the disaster.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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