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As New York state’s legislative session opens, leaders name their top priorities

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins takes her oath of office on Jan. 4, 2023.
New York State Senate Media Services
Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins takes her oath of office on Jan. 4, 2023.

The New York state 2023 legislative session has officially started, and lawmakers are expected to tackle issues ranging from a crisis in affordable housing to improving public safety.

The first day was devoted mostly to ceremonial actions, with lawmakers electing leaders, pledging bipartisanship, and putting off their differences until later in the month.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins was reelected for another term and begins her fifth year as the first woman and African American woman to serve as leader.

She said she wants to focus on affordable housing, noting that New York needs a new “transformative housing policy” as the cost of living continues to surpass average income.

“We see it most acutely in the current housing shortage that’s devastating New Yorkers across the state,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Leaving many to wonder if they’ll be able to make rent, let alone buy a house. The current market is failing to provide adequate supply.”

New York’s crime rate became an issue in the 2022 election campaign, and Stewart-Cousins and other Democrats came under pressure to rescind the 2019 bail reform laws, which ended most forms of cash bail.

She said solving the crime problem is more complicated than that.

“We understand that perception is powerful,” said Stewart-Cousins, who added crime can’t be solved with a “single solution.”

“Public safety and justice can go hand in hand,” she said.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt was also reelected. He jokingly contrasted the voting for his position to the troubles that House Republicans in Washington are having deciding on a leader.

“See, Republicans can elect a leader on the first ballot,” Ortt said.

Ortt continued to draw a contrast with the political gridlock in Washington, saying he wants to work with Democrats. He said the people who elected him and the other senators are depending on them to work together in a “serious” manner.

“That does not mean that we simply are here to oppose anything that comes out of the majority,” Ortt said. “We are here to do the job that we were elected to do by our constituents.”

Ortt, who represents the Buffalo area, said during the Christmas blizzard that killed at least 42 in that region, people did not care if their local or state officials were Democrats or Republicans -- they just wanted government to function and help them.

Ortt also offered a moment of silence on the Senate floor for Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin, who was critically injured in Monday night’s game.

In the Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie will not give his opening remarks until Monday.

Heastie, who is from the Bronx, had said in late December that he will also prioritize finding solutions to the housing affordability crisis in 2023.

“We want to make sure that people can afford to live and work not only in (New York City) but throughout the state,” Heastie said.

Assembly Democrats are also deciding whether to allow newly elected Republican Assemblyman Lester Chang to keep his seat. Questions have been raised about whether Chang has met the eligibility requirements for living in the Brooklyn district that he now represents. Democrats will make their decision next week.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.