While they differ on the details, and some are more inclined to see a glass as half-full and some to see it as half-empty, state lawmakers from Queens largely agree that this year’s legislative session, which wrapped up last week, was largely productive but came up short in certain key areas, according to an informal canvass done this week by the Queens Chronicle.
“I think overall we had a very good session,” said state Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park). “It was the third straight year we passed an on-time budget, with no new taxes and more money for education and healthcare. We accomplished a lot for the state, but we could have done better.”
Goldfeder was the most optimistic-sounding of half-a-dozen lawmakers — three members of the Assembly and three senators — interviewed Monday and Tuesday.
The least optimistic was Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside).
“I consider it to be a disappointing session,” Avella said. “The major issues that we were talking about — campaign finance, the women’s equality bill — didn’t happen. The best thing you can say is that we passed an on-time budget for the third year in a row, but it’s not enough.”
Right in the center was Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria), who cited new gun control legislation, called the Safe Act, an increase in the minimum wage and a bill to allow children to use sunscreen at school and summer camp as worthy accomplishments.
The latter has yet to be signed by Gov. Cuomo, but Gianaris said it just makes sense to change “foolish” state regulations that list sunscreen as an over-the-counter drug, preventing its use at school or camp without a doctor’s note.
The other two measures were signed into law earlier this year.
“For me, the big thing this session was the Safe Act, because so many of my bills were incorporated into it,” Gianaris said.
But, he said, a number of bills that should have gone forward did not, including the Women’s Equality Act, which would have addressed a number of issues including pay equity between the sexes, abortion rights and campaign finance reform. He put the blame squarely at the feet of the Senate leadership, which is led by Republicans but includes a handful of Democrats that don’t caucus with their own party.
“We saw a lot of issues left on the table that we were assured there would be progress on,” Gianaris said. “We didn’t even see a vote on them.”
Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Fresh Meadows) also put the Women’s Equality Act and campaign finance reform at the top of the bills that should have been passed but were not.
“New York State has always been a leader and always been at the forefront of women’s rights, women’s equality, whether it’s pay equity or a woman’s right to choose,” Rozic said, “and I think we need to maintain that reputation and that leadership.”
The Assembly passed the Women’s Equality Act as introduced, but the Senate broke it up into 10 pieces, passing nine but leaving the abortion section out. And since the Assembly passed the entire measure as one package while the Senate broke it up, there is no bill for the governor to sign, even on the nine items both houses put through.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), who differed with most of the other lawmakers interviewed for this article in that he saw no need for abortion to be part of the package, as it is protected by federal law. “Even if the Senate had voted on all 10 pieces, with the Assembly voting on it as one bill, it all would have been invalid anyway, so it was a waste of everyone’s effort. We would have been better dealing with the nine issues that really matter to women and really are issues now.”
Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) voted for the entire package despite not supporting the abortion provision.
“I’m pro-life, I’m not pro-choice, so I had an issue with the abortion piece,” Miller said. “But there were nine good parts in the bill, so I supported it overall.”
Goldfeder said he expects the governor to call lawmakers back into session to address the Women’s Equality Act and other issues.
For Goldfeder, his biggest concern was passing bills to aid in the recovery from Hurricane Sandy and to lessen damage from such storms in the future. One bill he authored, to ease building regulations for homeowners in Breezy Point, which was devastated by fire and water, passed both houses and, Goldfeder expects, will be signed by the governor. But another, designed to “hold insurance companies accountable,” did not make it through the Senate.
Goldfeder’s other top concern was the gaming bill that could end up legalizing casinos throughout the state but does not allow the expansion of Resorts World in Ozone Park into live table gambling. While the assemblyman said the bill “was a tremendous, tremendous disservice to the state and especially to Queens” because it disallows full table games at Resorts World, which he said would create about 1,000 jobs there, he voted for it.
The measure will benefit the state overall, Goldfeder said, though “I think we could have done better.”
The sentiment summed up what several of the lawmakers said of the session as a whole.
All said they were glad to have passed the Safe Act, but most agreed it was rushed through and should have been better planned. It barred, for example, retired police officers from carrying weapons with clips of more than seven bullets — along with everyone else — even though most police firearms hold far more. Lawmakers had to amend it after the fact to change that aspect of the bill.
Most said they were disappointed the state did not legalize mixed martial arts, also known as ultimate fighting, a sport that’s allowed in every other state. The Senate passed a bill to allow it in New York, but the Assembly did not.
“In the beginning when it first came out, it was very dangerous and very brutal,” Avella said. “But it’s much safer now. It still is a dangerous sport, but so is boxing. The Assembly wouldn’t pass it.”
Asked to assign a letter grade to the legislative session, Avella gave it a C. Addabbo gave it a B, Miller a B-plus and Goldfeder a B-minus. Gianaris and Rozic both gave it an I for incomplete.
All the lawmakers had particular issues they wanted to highlight, whether because they were glad action had been taken on them or were disappointed it had not been.
Miller had drawn up a bill to combat cell phone theft by insisting that manufacturers include what would essentially be a kill switch that would shut down a stolen phone, making the theft of them not worth the effort. But, he said, he came to understand that’s a federal issue, so he contacted Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Bronx, Queens) to let him know he’s got a bill he’d like to see introduced in Washington.
Avella said he was especially disappointed that the Assembly refuses to pass a bill that would see dangerous sex offenders classified before they are released from prison. As it stands, they have 45 days before they have to be assessed, leaving communities vulnerable, he said. The Senate has passed the bill three years in a row, but the Assembly, where Miller is sponsoring the same legislation, will not act on it.
Gianaris said he was glad both houses passed an extension of the film tax credit that benefits movie and TV studios in Western Queens, providing the area with more jobs.
Rozic said she was excited to be serving her first term in the Assembly, and glad that three bills she sponsored had been passed. She was disappointed, however, that one of those did not make it through the Senate: a measure that would require the MTA to provide municipalities with records of all assaults that take place on its train and bus routes. The goal is to make the agency “have a plan for combating safety issues,” she said.
Addabbo very much wants the state to pass a bill that would allow nonprofit groups to apply to the executive branch for funding to replace the member-item money that has been eliminated due to corruption cases surrounding it. He has spoken to the governor about the measure but it has gone nowhere in the Legislature so far, he said.
Goldfeder is frustrated by Senate inaction on a bill that would prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from depositing soil contaminated with toxins in Jamaica Bay. He said the fact that ocean dumping is banned for such material while it’s allowed in the bay is “mindboggling.”
All the lawmakers found something mindboggling in Albany during the session.