Photo Credit: Jewish Press

New Legislative Session, Same Old Problems

As Governor Cuomo kicked off the start of the 2018 legislative session, his 90-minute speech offered few new proposals. Among the new ideas is the restructuring of the state tax code in response to the federal government’s plans for eliminating the state and local tax deduction. Cuomo is proposing implementing a payroll tax to replace the income tax in an effort to offset state money going to the federal government.

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The 241st legislative session is scheduled to have lawmakers seated for 60 days, mostly for just a couple of hours at each gathering. Aside from the 60 days of session in Albany, lawmakers spend many hours attending local events, meeting constituents in their district offices and fundraising for re-election. All 213 state lawmakers are up for re-election this November.

Fresh Face in the State Assembly

Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal (D – Flushing, Queens) won his seat after the passing of Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz from cancer last year.

At 26, Rosenthal is currently the youngest member in the Assembly. He has been given five committee assignments that mirror the make-up of his district including labor, social services, insurance, real property tax, and aging. Yes, the youngest person in the Assembly chamber is sitting on the Assembly Aging Committee. The irony is not lost on Rosenthal.

“Whenever I visit a shul I’m frequently asked, ‘Are you the bar mitzvah boy or the Assemblymember?’”

Prior to being elected to the Assembly, Rosenthal worked as the district director for New York City Councilman Rory Lancman, a former assemblyman.

“I worked in government previously so I knew what I was getting myself into,” Rosenthal told The Jewish Press. The advice Lancman gave Rosenthal was to “make sure I have a working district office and that the trains are running on time. He’s really been a mentor so far.”

Dan Rosenthal (left) with Assemblyman David Weprin and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D – Suffern, Rockland County).

On opening day at the Capitol, Rosenthal was joined by his parents and his fiancé, Orly. The couple’s nuptials are slated for May, while the legislature is still in session. “We may have some sheva berochos up in Albany,” said Rosenthal, who prefers staying in a hotel while in Albany.

“He’ll need all of us for a minyan for the sheva berachos,” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D – Midwood, Brooklyn). There are 19 Jewish members in the assembly, 10 of whom are men.

“He sits right in front of me,” said Hikind. “It’s nice to see a black yarmulke right in front of me. Age is not the only factor that determines how smart you are or how sensitive you are. He’ll do well…”

Assemblyman Dick Gottfried (D – West Side, Manhattan) was 23 when he was first elected in 1970 while a student at Columbia Law School, the youngest lawmaker at that time.

“When you figure out what’s going on, you’ll be mistaken,” Gottfried told Rosenthal. “This is a place where you never stop learning and figuring out what’s going on. It is also a place where someone who is committed to making substantive change, can put in the work and make things happen.

Gottfried said he’d “seen members who have been here a couple of years able to achieve some important legislation. Dan Rosenthal has the smarts and the dedication to public service to be making that kind of change from the start.”

Another Indictment in the Assembly

Not all the news launching the legislative session was positive. Federal prosecutors handed down an 11-count indictment against Assemblywoman Pamela Harris (D – Brooklyn) on the third day of the legislative session. Harris was charged with multiple fraud schemes, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. The fraud schemes and obstruction of justice occurred before she was elected to office in 2015 and involved funds directed to repair damages from Hurricane Sandy. The charges of witness tampering happened while she was an assemblywoman and she got wind of the federal probe. Harris, 57, is a retired corrections officer.

Harris was chosen by party leadership in Brooklyn to replace Alec Brook-Krasny, when the Russian-Jewish Democratic lawmaker resigned to take a position with Quality Laboratory Services. He was indicted last year by the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for New York City on four counts of commercial bribing in the first degree. The charges are based on the continuing investigation into two medical clinics in Brooklyn allegedly involved in Medicaid fraud and selling prescriptions for powerful addictive pain pills. Related charges were filed in an earlier indictment in April, according to city prosecutors.

In April 2017, Brook-Krasny was among nine individuals and two corporate entities charged with schemes to illegally sell prescriptions for more than 3.7 million opioid painkillers, to defraud Medicaid and Medicare of millions of dollars and to commit money laundering through two Brooklyn medical clinics.

Former Senator Goes To Halfway House From Prison

Former state senator Carl Kruger, 68, has been moved to a halfway house in Brooklyn after serving six of his seven years in federal prison for government corruption and bribery. Kruger’s Senate district stretched to the western end of the Brook-Krasny/Harris assembly district.

Staff, Funding Problems Facing Guardianships Across the State

One of the more important but lesser known issues that will play out this session is known as Article 81 guardianship.

“The Article 81 guardianship system is broken,” Nassau County state Supreme Court Judge Arthur Diamond told a Senate panel reviewing how to fix the system. “It’s broken on two ends – finding people who will serve as guardians and we can’t get people to serve as court examiners anymore because there is no money to pay court examiners or it’s so little in comparison with the amount of work they’re refusing those appointments as well. Most of the wards have no money so lawyers have stopped taking cases in droves because they don’t want to spend the time and it can be an immense amount of time to be with someone who has Alzheimer’s of dementia, which many of our wards do, so lawyers are refusing those cases and there is no sanction for lawyers to refuse them.”

“What I noticed about this is the problem of being less restrictive,” said Senator John Bonacic, (R – Mount Hope, Orange County), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “That’s a moving target for someone who needs help. Fixing the problems is labor intensive, as I see it. If the problem is funding then we’re all into the two percent cap.”

Congestion Pricing, Campaign Finance, and Pay Raises

During a panel discussion hosted by City and State magazine, legislators from both houses declared congestion pricing dead on arrival. Assemblyman David Weprin (D – Holliswood, Queens) said, “Congestion pricing is a regressive tax. Congestion is bad, I will admit that. The remedies to reduce congestion that I’m proposing do not involve implementing taxes or tolls.”

While campaign finance reform may be an item to be talked about this session, it’s only all talk and sometimes tied in with a legislative pay raise. The consensus at the bipartisan panel discussion was there will not likely be any action to reform campaign financing or to raise legislative salaries.

“Outside income should be eliminated if the legislative salaries are doubled,” said Weprin.

But salary level is not always a deterrent either. “You can’t legislate morality,” Senator Phil Boyle (R – Bay Shore, Suffolk County) told the gathering. “We have tough laws against robbing banks but people still rob banks. One of the trials coming up this month involves one of the highest paid state employees.”

Boyle, 56, says he “earns $4,000 more now as a state legislator than when [I] was 29 years old.”

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.