ITHACA, N.Y. — It is that time of the year again. Legislators have returned to Albany facing a major budget shortfall while tensions with Iran and impeachment dominate the national discourse. It may be a new year, but Vaughn Golden is back with a round-up of the week that passed and a look a head at what’s to come at the state and federal levels.

Albany Returns

Legislators gaveled back into session in Albany this week. Democrats, who control both chambers of the legislature, came back with a laundry list of items left unfinished in 2019 including marijuana legalization, automatic voter registration and criminal justice reform.

However, the state must first plug the largest budget gap, $6 billion, since the recession of 2009 and the most bitter fight of the year is likely to be over where that cash will come from.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton told the Ithaca Voice last month that she’d support raising taxes on the wealthy to fix the problem and would vehemently oppose cutting education funding or otherwise placing the burden on local governments. About $4 billion of the budget gap is from the state’s Medicaid program.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t go into details about the gap. Here are some other things he brought up:

Bail Reform

Last year, the legislature passed a law to end cash bail, allowing most individuals awaiting trial to be released on their own recognizance. Republicans and other critics of the new laws have been slamming Democrats since the law went into effect on January 1.

“Not a day goes by without another story of another dangerous criminal being set free,” State Senator Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats) said in one of several press releases on the topic this week. “Governor Cuomo and the Democrats responsible for a bad and dangerous law refuse to heed the warning signs.”

This week State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins said the legislation requires “tweaks”, but State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie indicated he doesn’t want to change the legislation.

Automatic Voter Registration

The first major action by the state Senate came this week to fix a last minute “technical error” which doomed a piece of legislation meant to automatically register individuals to vote after filling out certain state paperwork like a drivers license application.

The legislation passed both chambers, but was thrown out because of a loophole where undocumented individuals would’ve been automatically, and illegally, registered to vote after receiving a drivers license under the state’s new Green Light legislation.

O’Mara voted against the measure. The Assembly is likely to vote on it in the coming weeks.

The U.S. Capitol building. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Congress War Powers

The House of Representatives passed a resolution Thursday that would limit President Donald Trump’s ability to strike or declare war on Iran unless in response to an immediate threat on the U.S. The bill passed mostly along party lines.

Rep. Tom Reed told the Ithaca Voice on a media call Wednesday that he hadn’t yet reviewed the legislation, but he believes the President should have power to deploy the military in a “protective role” though Congress should vote before any “protracted entanglements.”

“As I have always, consistently said. Congress needs to act. When our men and women are asked to go into harm’s way and risk their lives, the political cowardice of existing Congresses of not going on the record in regards to whether or not to oppose military action is something I stand against.”

Reed voted against Thursday’s resolution, which is required to come up for a vote in the Senate within 18 days.

In 2019, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) proposed a resolution to the National Defense Authorization Act that would’ve placed similar restrictions on the administration’s war powers with Iran. Reed voted in favor of the amendment but voted against the final passage of the NDAA. Khanna’s language was stripped from the finalized bill.

Looking ahead

State lawmakers will be in session Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week in Albany while, In D.C., the U.S. Senate continues to wait for its colleagues down the hall in the House, waiting for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to send over impeachment articles passed last month. The chamber is also getting close to passing the United States Mexico Canada (USMCA) Agreement to replace NAFTA possibly in the next few weeks.

Vaughn Golden is a freelance radio and print reporter covering politics around the southern tier and central New York. He authors the weekly "Capitol Watch" watchdog report on Ithaca's representatives...