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Disappointing Political Machinations

We are disappointed to report that because of the last minute intransigence of New York’s Governor George Pataki, the state Senate failed to pass the two bills important to the Jewish
community which we wrote about last week, and which had been passed earlier by the Assembly. One of the proposed bills would have established a new kosher laws to fill the gap in protection for kosher consumers created by federal court decisions declaring New York’s
kosher law unconstitutional. The other would have permitted private and religious schools to use state aid - already otherwise earmarked for their students - to be also used to purchase badly-needed computers for their students.

Unfortunately, while both bills passed the Democratic-led Assembly, they stalled as the Republican-dominated Senate, apparently taking its cue from Governor George Pataki, refused to act on them despite earlier indications that it would. To be sure, the bills were introduced by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, both Democrats. But an understanding on both sides of the aisle had emerged in the final days of the legislative session that the bills fundamentally stood on their own merits and should be enacted into law, with some minor revisions.

The story of the kashruth bill is particularly disturbing. Despite the fact that Senate leaders had indicated that the Silver/Spitzer bill was a “go, ” and that prominent Republican senators such as Michael Balboni and Martin Golden had signed on as sponsors, at the 11th hour the Senate refused to consider it. As we have pieced things together, it appears that Governor Pataki insisted that any new legislation would have to be built around a bill he had proposed several months ago without discussion with anyone outside of government and which incorporated certain substantive definitions of “kosher.” Yet to the dismay of virtually everyone with whom we spoke, the Pataki proposal - remarkably - flew directly in the face of the court decisions which struck down the old law on the ground that it enforced religious standards of “kosher.”

Plainly, whether or not one agrees with those court decisions it is necessary to recognize that any new law must be consistent with those decisions. The law proposed by Assembly Speaker Silver and Attorney General Spitzer was just that – essentially requiring vendors only to disclose their basis for representing food as kosher, including the name, contact information
and affiliation of any individual or organization certifying the food as kosher. The bill also required stores to post a Kosher Certification Form containing this information, and directed the State Department of Agriculture and Markets to develop and maintain a website where interested consumers could download the certification information.

Indeed, this approach was endorsed by members of a task force examining the kosher laws that included representatives of Agudath Israel of America, the American Jewish Congress,
COLPA, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the National Council of Young Israel, the Orthodox Union, the United Synagogue of America and the renowned constitutional lawyer Nathan Lewin. Despite this consensus within the Jewish community, the bill failed to proceed beyond the Assembly.

A similar fate befell another Silver/Spitzer bill, this one to provide computers for nonpublic school students at no increase in the overall amount of state aid. More than three years have
passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such aid is permissible, and yet New York still does not provide computer aid to non-public school students. The bill would have simply allowed certain moneys already allocated for specific student needs to be spent on computers at the discretion of the schools.

This latter bill was developed on the heels of last year’s Attorney General’s Report on Non-Public Education, which recommended that the State assist nonpublic school students with computers and opined that such aid does not violate either the federal or state constitutions. Here too, the bill passed the Assembly but was then ignored by the Senate after an understanding had been reached as to its passage.

We applaud Speaker Silver and Attorney General Spitzer for championing these issues, even as we are appalled by the governor’s seeming willingness to sacrifice meaningful legislation for
political gain. We are hopeful that the Jewish community will make its voice heard and that these bills will be considered when the Legislature next convenes.

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