NYS Legislature Is Off To A Fast Start
The legislative session is getting into full swing this week with budget hearings getting underway. These gatherings often feature agency commissioners from the Cuomo administration, interest group leaders and advocates for special causes all seeking money and changes in law to favor what they feel is important.
For the most part these budget hearings become everything from gripe sessions to ego massaging speeches to assuage lawmakers’ priorities when making financial decisions.
Often there are as many as 40 lawmakers from both houses sitting at the budget hearings listening to the first three speakers, and then the panel diminishes to four or five lawmakers from the interested committees they are connected with.
For the next three weeks the following topics will be exhaustively examined: Environmental Conservation, Human Services, Higher Education, Public Protection, Transportation, Housing, Workforce Development, Health/Medicaid, Elementary and Secondary Education, Mental Hygiene, Local Government Officials/General Government, Economic Development, Taxes. These hearings are live-streamed and can be accessed from the Assembly and Senate websites.
Aside from number-crunchers presenting their figures to support their own positions, lawmakers were in session for two days this week. As this is the most diverse legislature in the history of the state it is not surprising that lawmakers debated a bill known as the Dream Act sooner than later. The measure is aimed at helping undocumented immigrant college students apply for state aid. This measure has a $27 million price tag attached.
The oft-controversial Child Victims Act is also up for debate. The measure would allow adults to take legal action, both civil and criminal, against public and private educational institutions and individuals for sexual abuse that occurred when they were children.
The Child Victims Act would re-open – for one year –cases of sexual assault whose statute of limitations has already lapsed. After that, it would extend the statute of both criminal and civil cases beyond the current limitations, allowing civil cases, for example, to be brought 50 years from the time the sexual assault occurred.
This presents a quandary for the Catholic and Jewish religious schools and lawmakers who support their mission. “I’m sympathetic to the victims,” said freshman Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein. “However, we can’t bankrupt our institutions.”
The Assembly has passed a version of the Child Victims Act each year for the past decade and Eichenstein assumes that will be the starting point. “I have great concerns with that language,” Eichenstein told The Jewish Press.
If it is included as part of the budget, it will be more difficult to oppose this one item because then opponents would have to oppose everything else in the same bill. The Assembly and Senate leadership, along with the governor’s office, might have three different versions that need to be unified into one bill.
Already passed by both houses overwhelmingly and sent to the governor’s desk for a final determination is the Genda bill. Genda is an acronym for the Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act. This measure prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression; defines “gender identity or expression” as having or being perceived as having a gender identity, self image, appearance, behavior or expression whether or not that gender identity, self image, appearance, behavior or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth; it further includes offenses regarding gender identity or expression within the list of offenses subject to treatment as hate crimes.
One additional note to point out is that the kosher food is flowing nicely to meet the needs of observant Jewish legislators and visitors who advocate for special causes.
Even so, old eating habits for some are hard to break. “I eat one meal a day and I don’t expect much,” Eichenstein said. “I enjoy tuna fish, rice cakes, coffee and instant soups. I don’t expect much and I’m fine bringing food from home.”
Finally, from one Simcha in the Assembly to another one in the state Senate, Simcha Felder remains without a conference to support the needs of his constituents. To date, Felder has sponsored 19 bills this session. Felder, a Democrat who used to be part of the Republican conference when they were in the majority, sits in the same seat on the Senate floor designated for such outcasts as Brooklyn’s Carl Kruger, who was released from federal prison in August after spending several years behind bars. Felder’s seat is next to his pal Senator Robert Jackson (D – Washington Heights, Manhattan). The two served in the New York City Council and Jackson, a Muslim, is trying to soothe bad feelings between Felder and the Democratic majority conference.
I will write more about this if and when the situation changes.