The DisPatch was expecting to take a look at the local impacts of a federal government shutdown this week, but that scenario was averted at the last minute by key lawmakers in Washington, who agreed on Friday night to cut spending for the remainder of the year by $38 billion. Federal employees—and anyone who was planning to visit the Smithsonian this week—can breath a sigh of relief.
Instead, we'll take a quick peek at what's to come out of Albany during the remainder of the legislative session, which ends in June.
Lawmakers have said that two of their top priorities are the extension of rent control laws for New York City and its suburbs and a statewide cap on property tax increases. The current rent regulations, which cap rent on stabilized apartments at $2,000 per month, are set to expire June 15. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other New York City Democrats have strongly advocated for the expansion of this cap to $3,000 and the reform of several related laws.
Rent regulations have been tied repeatedly to the 2 percent property tax cap, which has already passed the Senate after being introduced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The Assembly could be holding out in exchange for the Senate's approval of the rent guidelines. But local governments and school districts are concerned that the cap will be untenable without significant reform of unfunded state mandates, and Cuomo in recent weeks has signaled his willingness to allow certain costs, including pension contributions, to be exempted from the cap.
Cuomo, meanwhile, has said that he will make the legalization of same-sex marriage a top priority. The freshman governor is expected to introduce a bill to that end this month. While same-sex marriage enjoys wide support in the Assembly, only 26 of the Senate's 62 members have voiced their approval. This means Cuomo and marriage equality advocates will have to sway six senators in their push to make New York the sixth state in the country to grant full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.
Cuomo is also talking tough about ethics reform—specifically a measure that would require lawmakers to disclose, in detail, their outside income. Legislators who have outside careers as lawyers may also have to publicly disclose who their clients are. Cuomo has threatened to convene a commission that could subpoena key lawmakers and force them to show their hand if they refuse to pass his bill.
The legislature will also continue what has been a spirited debate over the drawing of district lines. Current law allows lawmakers to redraw the lines every decade, after the Census is complete. Critics say the practice guarantees reelection—an assertion bolstered by the state's 98 percent incumbency rate.
Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos all have signaled support for the creation of an independent redistricting commission. The problem is that all three have significantly different opinions on what that commission should look like, and when it should begin its work. A decision will have to be made soon, as the maps are set to be recalibrated next year ahead of the 2012 elections.
Last, but certainly not least, is a burgeoning debate over the naming of an official state vegetable. Yes, I'm serious.
Rockland County Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown), who also represents the "black dirt" region of Orange County, is pushing for the onion to be named the state's top veggie. But upstate lawmakers, led by Republican Sen. Michael Nozzolio, are advocating for sweet corn. Meanwhile, newly minted Agriculture Commissioner Darrell Aubertine has suggested that the pumpkin be considered a serious candidate.
A possible wrench in the works: neither corn nor pumpkins are technically vegetables. No one has yet backed cabbage, which is actually New York's number one cash crop. You can have your say by voting on the state Farm Bureau's Facebook page.
Here's a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between April 1 and April 8:
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) introduced one bill, which would require that at least one member of the board of the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) be a county legislator. IDAs are quasi-governmental agencies that offer tax breaks and other incentives to businesses looking to open or expand in a particular region. The agencies are often criticized for their potential for cronyism and corruption.
Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) did not introduce any bills.
Castelli on April 7 announced that the New York Business Development Corporation (NYBDC) approved $1.7 million in loans for four Westchester businesses: Arroway Chevrolet in Mount Kisco, Magnus LLC in Rye, Preferred Auto Service in Chappaqua and Cucina Antica Foods in Bedford Hills. The loans, Castelli said, will be used to create a total of 35 jobs and retain an additional 54 positions. The NYBDC is an umbrella group of 128 banks that offer small-business loans.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) introduced five bills, including a proposal to prohibit lawmakers from holding fundraisers in Albany—or anywhere in Albany County, for that matter—while the legislature is in session. Legislators who represent Albany would be exempt from the ban.
Other bills would regulate the nutritional content of food sold in school vending machines, a proposal that has died in the Assembly three times in the last five years, and extend until 2017 a program that offers recruitment incentives to people who join the National Guard.
Galef also wants to require lawmakers to calculate the projected cost of a proposal to state or local governments over a three-year period.
The next episode of Galef's "Dear Sandy" local-access TV show will air on Friday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m. on Comcast and 9 p.m. on Cablevision.
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) introduced two bills, one of which would allow the Congregation Talmud Torah in Monsey to apply for a property tax exemption.
Jaffee's second bill "relates to the management of the American eel," but no further information was immediately available.
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) introduced four bills, including a proposal that would require unsuccessful litigants to pay defendants' legal fees.
A local bill would allow residency requirement exemptions for deputy sheriffs in Putnam County and the assistant court clerk in the town of Somers.
Katz will hold mobile office hours at North Salem Town Hall on April 13 from 4 to 7 p.m.
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) introduced three bills, one of which would allow local governments to make purchases off of the contracts of other municipalities. The practice, known as "piggybacking," is currently allowed only on county contracts.
Another bill relates to the management of hickory shad, a fish found commonly in the waters of the Long Island Sound. Specifics on the bill were not immediately available.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) introduced three bills, one of which would make permanent a current program that allows child protection agencies to offer "differential responses" in instances of child abuse or neglect. Differential response refers to a practice in which agencies can offer multiple responses to a particular case, instead of one definitive solution. The practice is particularly useful, advocates say, in low-risk cases where a number of methods may resolve a case of abuse or neglect.
Paulin also wants to require state agencies to make their payroll records available to the public.
Ball on April 8 hosted a hearing in Manhattan that probed the state's homeland security since the 9/11 attacks. Witnesses included Long Island Congressman Peter King, who recently investigated the radicalization of U.S. Muslims in similar hearings. On April 5, Sen. Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn) sent a letter to Ball outlining his opposition to two of the speakers at the event.
"This hearing," Parker wrote, "will provide a venue to unqualified individuals who profit from maligning Muslims." Those individuals, Nonie Darwish and Frank Gaffney, have repeatedly criticized Shariah law, and Islam in general, as being violent and megalomaniacal. Parker goes on to tie their "rhetoric" to the increasing discrimination of Muslims.
In a response, Ball pointed out that Parker and other senators were invited to make suggestions weeks ago, and are "only now trying to create a political show for political theater."
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) did not introduce any bills.
Carlucci on April 7 held a press conference to discuss "Lauren's Law," which would change driver's license applications to include a yes/no question about enrolling in the state's organ-donor program. Currently only 11 percent of drivers are enrolled in the state's organ-donor program, while other states have enrollment as high as 65 percent. The law is named for Lauren Shields, a 10-year-old girl who received a life-saving heart transplant. Lauren joined Carlucci at the press conference, which you can watch here.
Carlucci on April 10 held an Easter Egg roll at Peck's Pond Park in West Haverstraw. In addition to the Easter Bunny, a number of health-care agencies were on hand to discuss healthy lifestyle choices.
Carlucci on April 14 will hold a hearing in Stony Point focused on the safety of New York's nuclear power plants.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) did not introduce any bills.
Speaking on the Senate floor last week, Oppenheimer urged her colleagues to make education the focus of the rest of the legislative session, given the $1.3 billion in cuts to school districts in the state budget.
"Our schools need our immediate help to reduce their costs, provide mandate relief, improve teaching and protect a system that has already suffered incredible losses," she said.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) did not introduce any bills.
Stewart-Cousins was one of a handful of senators that signed a letter to Sen. Greg Ball outlining their opposition to two of the speakers at his April 8 hearing on homeland security. The letter singled out authors Nonie Darwish and Frank Gaffney for their hardline opposition to Islam.