Tougher retail theft laws face opposition


With help from Shawn Ness

Gov. Kathy Hochul and small business owners rallied today in support of $45 million plan to crack down on organized retail theft. But Democratic lawmakers have concerns.

Boosting penalties for people who assault retail workers is running into the state budget buzzsaw.

Legislative Democrats have formally rejected Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to make it a felony for assaulting a retail worker, a reflection of how the party remains split over criminal justice issues and how to address voters’ concerns over public safety.

Hochul, perhaps anticipating opposition from her fellow Democrats, sought to highlight her anti-shoplifting plan with bodega owners and elected official allies today in Albany.

The Red Room news conference dovetailed with Hochul appearing later in the day with Mayor Eric Adams to tout a plan meant to remove “ghost cars” from city streets that evade tolls. It was a moment that also served to paper over any perception the two Democrats had a rift over her move to deploy National Guard units and State Police troopers at subway stations.

Hochul this month has not shied away from opportunities to hammer away once again at crime and public safety issues, which were politically potent for her Republican challenger Lee Zeldin and down-ballot GOP candidates in 2022.

And addressing retail theft offers Hochul a chance to take on a relatively low-stakes issue that New Yorkers experience every time they try to buy toiletries under lock and key at their local pharmacy.

Retail workers “are very vulnerable, and they deserve those protections,” Hochul said.

She pointed to the broader impact of retail theft in the wake of the pandemic and the effect shuttered businesses can have on a downtown.

“Foot traffic dwindles, people go online and some businesses just can’t make it,” she said from her second floor office suites.

But on the Capitol’s third floor, the conversation was a different one over retail theft: Many Democratic lawmakers remain skeptical that higher criminal penalties will lead to a reduction in crime.

In the state Senate, Democrats backed Hochul’s proposal for a tax credit for retailers to boost security. But they want to spread the $40 million around Hochul earmarked for a State Police task force addressing retail crime by sending some of that money to local police departments.

Top Senate Democrats insisted they are willing to negotiate with the governor over the issue, even as they questioned whether retail workers themselves wanted stricter consequences for assault.

“We’re all very sensitive to the problem of retail theft, and we want to address it,” Deputy Senate Majority Leader Mike Gianaris told reporters. “It’s not so much an outright rejection as a different way to look at it.”

Assemblymember John McDonald, a Democrat from the Albany area who is supportive of increasing penalties for assaulting retail workers, pointed to the broader aversion lawmakers have with inserting non-fiscal policy into the budget.

Still, that opposition could give way in the budget talks. The spending plan is due by April 1, the start of New York’s fiscal year.

McDonald told Playbook “a majority of the members” he speaks with from different areas of New York are supportive of addressing retail theft.

“They want to see action in regard to penalties in most circumstances,” he said. “But there are members who are vocally against it. This is part of a three-way negotiation.” — Nick Reisman

The Republican legislative conferences are urging the rest of the state Legislature to adopt a bail reform bill after four suspects were released without bail in a double murder and dismemberment case in Babylon, Long Island.

BABYLON BAIL REFORM: Republican lawmakers expressed outrage after four suspects were released without bail after they were charged with concealment of a corpse and evidence tampering when the remains for two Yonkers residents were found in various locations in Babylon on Long Island.

The suspects instead were given GPS ankle monitors and instructed to report to in-person probation and surrender their passports.

The crime has again sparked a large debate around the 2019 bail reform bill that removed cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies and gave judges discretion to consider alternatives to incarceration.

“We are now on our fourth iteration of the bill, and we’re looking for a fifth and remarkably within one state in the union,” state Sen. Anthony Palumbo, a Long Island Republican, said during a news conference today at the Capitol. “All 49 states and the federal level have a dangerousness standard that a judge can consider with respect to judicial discretion and as to whether or not they should hold individuals charged with particular crimes.”

Palumbo and state Sen. Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick, a fellow Long Island Republican, are backing bills that would reclassify the dismemberment and concealment of a corpse to a class E felony and strengthen the use of GPS monitoring systems in the “most heinous case.”

“Someone that is willing to cut up human remains and just disregard them and throw them out into the public, for a child on their way to school to find, to me is dangerous, and they’re in danger. They’re a danger to public safety,” Assemblymember Michael Durso, who represents Babylon, said. — Shawn Ness

HOCHUL ON HOUSING: Hochul sees a growing appetite among elected leaders to address New York’s housing shortage — and she’s taking credit for that.

“I’m glad to see that people are now coming around to the idea that housing needs to be built,” Hochul told reporters today, responding to a question about the one-house budget proposals on housing. “This is a transition from a year or even past years — people are now saying, it has to happen. That to me is great progress, and I’m really proud of it.”

The Senate’s one-house proposal called for creating a new state entity to facilitate housing construction on state-owned land, and it signaled appetite for a new version of the 421-a tax break in New York City — if it’s part of a larger package that includes the “core principles” of the controversial “good cause” eviction measure.

Hochul said she doesn’t want to “pre-judge” the one-house resolutions before reviewing them, but emphasized that expanding production must be central to a housing package. Last year, her plan to mandate new housing was rejected.

“I put it out there last year in a bold way, got people talking — one year later, I think we’re going to get something done,” she said. “So they’ll be robust discussions about the approach, but walking away from this session without doing something on building more housing will not be acceptable to me.” — Janaki Chadha

Mayor Eric Adams dismissed former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's statement he made in an op-ed about delaying congestion pricing.

CUOMO CAN’T QUIT: Adams brushed off former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York Post op-ed calling to delay congestion pricing — even while the mayor isn’t completely sold on it himself.

“The former governor has been all over the place lately,” Adams quipped with a laugh at a wide-ranging press conference today when asked about the thoughts of Cuomo, who’s itching for a political comeback.

Cuomo, who signed the law in 2019, says politicians are cowing to extremists by planning to implement a toll for drivers entering half of Manhattan as soon as June, questioning why to do so “when the migrant crisis, crime, homelessness, quality of life and taxes are all pressing problems?”

Adams raised his usual concerns in response — that congestion pricing could overburden certain working class drivers and that the scheme could hurt the city’s economic recovery. But he doesn’t know if that would be the case, pledging to rely on answers from “experts” with “substantial research and data” to guide him.

“We have to look at the data. This can’t be just gut, and this can’t just be emotionally driven,” he said. “This is a major shift in how we use our roadways.” — Jeff Coltin

NO WORRIES: Adams expressed his usual confidence in achieving his Albany agenda today, fresh off a trip to the state capital for the Somos conference.

“We do this dance every year,” he said at a wide-ranging press conference at City Hall. “And each year, we start off the year ‘Eric is not going to get what he wants in Albany. They’re not going to do anything.’ And then we walk off with all these wins!”

The mayor, who served as a state senator for seven years, has been consistently defensive about his administration’s ability to lobby lawmakers. His asks this year include a four-year extension of mayoral control of schools (he got a shorter one two years ago) and laws easing housing production in the city (he came up short last year).

“This is the beginning of the process,” Adams said, with the budget due in about three weeks. “It’s going to be alright. All we have to do is take a deep breath.” — Jeff Coltin

DIETL IN A HAYSTACK: The mayor’s longtime friend Bo Dietl, who threw him a campaign fundraiser, could be in the running for a migrant services contract if he meets the criteria.

“We’re going to get the best price for New Yorkers,” Adams said at the press briefing, referring to Dietl’s security and private investigation firm. “If Bo’s price is the best price, then we are going to look and go through the legal aspects of it like everyone else.”

Adams was responding to a POLITICO report that found top mayoral aide Tim Pearson delayed the opening of a migrant center at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn as he tried unsuccessfully to land Dietl’s firm a security contract at the facility.

While City Hall did not dispute POLITICO’s reporting that Pearson tried to bring Dietl into the fold — arguing only that the facility’s opening was not delayed — Adams sought to discredit the story by blaming disgruntled employees and pledging to maintain the same contracting standards.

“There are people who remain administration after administration, and they are just angry,” Adams said. “And they call [reporters] up: ‘Hey, I saw Eric eat a piece of fish.’”

While the mayor did admit to dabbling in pescatarianism after a 2022 POLITICO report, his usual order of branzino and salad at Osteria la Baia was gleaned from an employee of the restaurant — not anyone in city government.

And ironically, it was Dietl himself who even earlier flagged the mismatch between Adams’ public persona as a vegan and what actually appeared on his plate.

In July 2021, when Adams was still Brooklyn borough president but a shoo-in to become mayor, he dined with the former NYPD detective and John Catsimatidis, the billionaire political donor and commentator, at ultra-exclusive Rao’s on the Upper East Side, according to a report in the New York Post.

“Both men told The Post that Adams ordered fish — with Dietl describing the BP’s dinner as ‘broiled fish. No olive oil’ and ‘spinach. No olive oil,’” the Post wrote, while noting an Adams representative disputed the account. — Joe Anuta

Senate and Assembly Democrats at a congestion pricing news event in February. Sen. Michael Gianaris and Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani were pleased with the fare-free bus route proposal in the state Senate and Assembly's one-house budgets.

CONGESTION PRICING: State Sen. Michael Gianaris and Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani were pleased with the inclusion of fare-free buses in both the Senate and Assembly’s one-house budgets.

Gianaris and Mamdani previously asked for $90 million for the MTA to increase bus frequency and for fare-free rides, which is the exact price point in the Senate’s one-house resolution.

The existing free buses have already resulted in a 20 percent increase in ridership on the free routes. It’ll be up to lawmakers and Hochul to decide whether to include the measure in the final budget deal.

“Today, both houses of the Legislature demonstrated their commitment to putting the MTA on the express track to deliver a better system for riders — and taking an evidence-based approach,” the lawmakers said in a shared statement.

The duo is happy that an “evidence-based approach” is being taken. They cited a 17 percent increase in bus services in London before the congestion pricing program was launched, and that “the greatest city in the world deserves the same” as the city moves toward its own congestion pricing plan for parts of Manhattan. — Shawn Ness

SUNSHINE WEEK: Over 30 advocates for increased government transparency sent a letter to Hochul and legislative leaders to make the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) stronger.

The groups are advocating for four different bills: the FOIL Timeline Act, the FOIL Reporting Act, the Limiting Commercial FOIL Exemption Act, and the FOIL Attorneys’ Fees Act.

Sunshine Week is an annual-newspaper inspired event to “bring sunshine” to the government. The letter comes only a few days after Reinvent Albany, another transparency watchdog, published a report examining FOIL requests in six different agencies, finding the need for improvement.

Another study found that 75 percent of local governments do not make meeting documents public, and 35 percent do not even advertise a meeting agenda.

The FOIL Timeline Act, sponsored by Sen. James Skoufis and Assemblymember Steven Raga, hopes to address the issue of agencies not responding to requests in a timely manner. It would increase the number of days that agencies have to respond to requests to 30 days and give them a max of 60 days to actually supply the requested records. — Shawn Ness

ACCESS TO REPRESENTATION: Five major labor unions sent a letter to Hochul to urge her to pass the Access to Representation Act, which would provide legal counsel to New Yorkers facing deportation.

“Our immigrant members and their families have a fighting chance of staying here in New York, in their communities, and on the job, if they are represented by a lawyer,” the letter said.

They are calling on Hochul to include $150 million in the state budget for immigration legal services and to set up infrastructure that supports the needs of migrant New Yorkers.

The letter was signed by the New York State Nurses Association, DC 37, Communications Workers of America and the 32BJ Service Employees International Union.

According to a report from Center for Migration Studies of New York, 31 percent of the state’s workforce are migrants.

“New York faces a labor shortage, with nearly half a million vacant jobs and not enough workers available to fill them. The contributions of immigrant New Yorkers are crucial to the state’s economic strength and future,” the letter said. — Shawn Ness

CIVIL RIGHTS CHALLENGE: New York Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal — a Palestinian rights organization — sued Columbia University over the suspension of two pro-Palestinian groups last year.

The organizations filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on behalf of Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia-Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as two individual students. They are looking to force the university to rescind the suspensions and reinstitute the clubs, who have called for a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas.

“That’s retaliatory, it’s targeted, and it flies in the face of the free speech principles that institutes of higher learning should be defending,” Donna Lieberman, NYCLU’s executive director, said in a statement. “Students protesting at private colleges still have the right to fair, equal treatment — and we are ready to fight that battle in court.” — Madina Touré

The IRS launched a pilot program for free tax filing in New York as well as 12 other states. (State of Politics)

The former chairperson of the Hempstead Village Housing Authority was sentenced to 10 years in jail for fraudulently redirecting $1 million in funds and for accepting $100,000 in bribes. (Newsday)

State lawmakers are grappling with an increase in police vehicle crashes over the last decade. (Times Union)

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