Lawmakers OK emission cuts, farmworker rights

ALBANY — New York would adopt the nation's most aggressive carbon emission reduction goals and give new rights to farmworkers under proposals moving through the state Legislature Wednesday.

With the session scheduled to end Wednesday, lawmakers planned to work through the night to wrap up work on hundreds of bills.

Efforts to legalize marijuana, however, fizzled Wednesday as lawmakers conceded they didn't have the votes. Instead, lawmakers said they might vote to eliminate some criminal penalties for smoking marijuana in public and create a way for people to expunge past pot convictions from their records.

Here's a look at the latest legislative action:

CLIMATE CHANGE: The Senate voted early Wednesday morning to adopt new targets for future carbon emissions reductions, with the ultimate goal of 100% renewable energy by 2040.

The measure, expected to pass the Assembly on Wednesday or Thursday, would also mandate an 85% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.

Once adopted, the targets would give New York the most aggressive renewable energy goals in the nation.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the bill.

FARMWORKERS: Legislation allowing farmworkers to collectively bargain and collect overtime after 60 hours of work per week passed both chambers after several hours of debate.

Supporters said farmworkers deserve the same rights and protections as other workers. The bill would also give farmworkers other labor benefits, such as a mandated day of rest each week.

"Farmworkers deserve proper protections for the physically taxing, sometimes dangerous work they do that fuels our agricultural sector and puts food on our tables," said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-the Bronx.

Many farmers, however, say the bill will raise labor costs, potentially devastating the state's already struggling agricultural industry. Assemblyman Andrew Raia, R-Long Island, predicted that larger farms would replace workers with automation.

"A small farm can't automate," he said. "They'll just close down."

Last month, a mid-level appellate court ruled that farmworkers should have the same right to unionize as any other worker.

Local representatives in the New York Assembly were united in their opposition to the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. 

"Assemblywoman Marjorie Byrnes (R,C-Caledonia), whose district is largely made up of farmland, voted no on the bill and strongly opposes the legislation due to increased costs for farmers.

Farmers across the state have come together on numerous occasions in opposition of the proposal that would authorize farmworkers to join unions and collective bargaining agreements. Foes say the new mandates will increase agricultural costs and further burden family farms at a time when farmers are already enduring financial crisis. Allegany, Steuben and Livingston counties recently passed resolutions in opposition of the original bill due to concerns with the proposal.

“The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is another regulation crippling our state’s farmers. Dairy farming requires 24/7 labor, and crop farming is seasonal and heavily dependent on weather. I worry that this bill will drive already-struggling farms into the ground,” said Byrnes. “Farm owners are already forced to withstand paying one of the highest minimum wages in the nation, and by implementing overtime, farms will face increased labor costs and lower profit margins." 

Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (R,C,I-Corning) echoed those concerns. 

“Over the past five years, we’ve lost 20% of our dairy farms. According to a Farm Credit East study, net farm income has plummeted 50% statewide over the past few years," Palmesano said. "Nationally, labor costs account for 36% of net farm income. In New York state, it’s 63%. So New York farmers are already at a competitive disadvantage to those in neighboring states.

“This bill would turn a difficult situation into an impossible one. This bill would increase costs on family farms by hundreds of millions of dollars and decrease net farm income even further. This, coupled with the fact that farmers are unable to recoup increased costs because they can’t set their own prices, is simply unworkable. It creates a wage board that stacks the deck against small farmers by allowing New York City labor unions and the governor’s hand-picked labor boss to team up against the interests of farmers. It ignores the seasonal, weather-dependent nature of harvests. Like many poorly-conceived wage mandates, it will kill the very jobs it claims to fortify.

“Ninety-eight percent of the farms in New York State are family owned, and they have no way to generate the needed revenue to keep up with these increased costs and mandates," concluded Palmesano.

Assemblyman Joseph M. Giglio (R,C,I-Gowanda) also voted against the Farm Laborers Fair Practices Act.

“Today’s passage of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act in the New York State Assembly is an assault on our way of life in rural western and upstate New York," he said. "This legislation will have disastrous effects on the farming industry throughout the state, and will increase expenses for farmers and raise costs for consumers. The bill was sponsored by New York City politicians who have never set foot on a farm and don’t have any farms in their districts.

“Our family farms already struggle with normal small business operating expenses, and challenges with weather and marketplace competition. The addition of mandates that are unworkable in a farming environment will destroy this already-struggling industry.”

Agriculture in New York is currently a $4.8 billion industry, with more than 35,000 farms across the state.

“The very survival of agriculture in New York is now at risk with the passage of this bill, which threatens the livelihood of thousands of farm families and the jobs of the farm workers it allegedly protects,” said Giglio.

The legislation requires farmers to pay overtime, provides for eight-hour workdays, allows for unionization and more. Giglio said farming is a unique industry, particularly in New York, which unlike farming states like California and Florida, has only one growing season.

In the Senate, meanwhile, State Senator Tom O’Mara (R,C,I-Big Flats) voted against the legislation.

O’Mara said, “It’s another bad move at the worst possible time when too many family farms across our region and statewide are already struggling to make ends meet and survive.  This action has devastating implications for family farms and an entire agricultural industry that has long been the cornerstone of economies and cultures across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions, and throughout upstate New York.  It’s another extreme move by a radically progressive state government, under one-party control, that will cost jobs, devastate hard-working families, and further weaken the foundations of local upstate economies.”

Earlier this year, in a letter to legislative leaders, O’Mara and Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (R,C,I-Corning) called for extensive statewide public hearings on the proposal.  They wrote, in part, “The misguided and misrepresented Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act poses an extreme action at a time of already severe economic struggle for New York State farmers.  Worse, the Act’s consequences would produce a nightmare of a ripple effect across local communities in every region of this state and profoundly diminish the future of high quality, local food production.  In short, the Act, far from implementing fair labor practices, would in reality spark an enormous loss of family farms and the thousands of livelihoods these farms support across the industry and throughout hundreds of local economies statewide.”

If enacted, O’Mara and many of the Act’s opponents, including the New York Farm Bureau and Unshackle Upstate, argue that it will increase already exorbitant farm labor costs in New York State by nearly $300 million or close to 20%, resulting in an across-the-board drop in net farm income of 23% and driving many farmers out of business.  For many specific agricultural sectors, including the dairy industry, and vegetable and fruit growers, the increased costs would be unsustainable.  According to a 2016 economic analysis from Farm Credit East, an agricultural credit and financial organization, total farm labor costs in New York State were 63 percent of net cash farm income, compared to 36 percent nationally.  

The Act fails to take into account the cost of housing provided to many farm workers by their farm employers, O’Mara said. It further requires time and a half overtime pay for a worker “voluntarily” working on their allotted, by law, day off whether or not the worker has exceeded the weekly hours threshold triggering overtime pay.  These and other actions called for under the Act, including the creation of a three-member Farm Wage Board granted the authority to unilaterally change the law’s provisions, will greatly exacerbate the impact of farm labor costs on farm income at a time when the farm economy is already struggling.  

Over the past five years, for example, New York State has lost 20 percent of its dairy farms.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT: The state's legal standard for sexual harassment would be tweaked to make it easier for victims to bring harassment claims in court under a bill that passed both the Senate and Assembly.

Specifically, the bill would eliminate a standard in state law that misconduct must be "severe and pervasive" in order to be considered harassment. Supporters say the change will help victims get justice through civil lawsuits.

Cuomo called the existing standard "absurd."

"With the passage of this bill, we will make it easier for claims to be brought forward and send a strong message that when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, time is up," Cuomo said in a statement.

Lawmakers also voted to eliminate the statute of limitations for second- and third-degree rape. The change would not apply retroactively.

MARIJUANA: A proposal to legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana fizzled Wednesday when Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan and the bill's sponsor, conceded it wouldn't pass this year.

Lawmakers then turned their attention to a more modest bill that would eliminate some existing criminal penalties for possessing marijuana in public. The new proposal would also create a process for people to expunge past pot convictions from their record. A vote was expected late Wednesday or Thursday.

GAY PANIC: Both chambers approved legislation that would ensure people who attack or kill a gay person can't beat the charge by arguing they panicked because of their victim's sexuality.

Under current law, defendants can attempt to excuse violent attacks by arguing they were under extreme emotional distress. The bill states that the so-called "gay panic" defense cannot be considered a "reasonable explanation" for a violent crime.

Cuomo has said he will sign the bill.