Gov. Andrew Cuomo and members of his administration are touring the state to push the freshman's top three priorities in the remaining weeks of the legislative session: a cap on property tax increases, ethics reform and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Cuomo has framed his support for marriage equality, which has already been passed in five states and the District of Columbia, as deeply personal. Richard Socarides, a New Yorker and the head of national gay-rights group Equality Matters, served with Cuomo in the Clinton White House and said that the governor's aggressive support could be the difference in passing the legislation this year.
"In no other state has a governor championed and campaigned for this in the way Cuomo is doing," Socarides said.
According to a Marist poll released last week, support for same-sex marriage is strongest in the suburbs of New York City. The poll found that a majority of state residents—53 percent—believe that marriage should be only between a man and a woman. Exactly half of those polled, however, said that gay couples should be allowed to marry. In the suburbs, 43 percent believe in the traditional definition of marriage while 55 percent believe it should be revised.
Westchester has been a progressive hot-spot on the issue, passing a law granting gay and lesbian county workers domestic partnership benefits in 1998. In 2006, then-County Executive Andy Spano issued an executive order recognizing out-of-state gay marriages. The move was largely symbolic, but in 2008 Gov. David Paterson issued an identical order on the state level, granting married same-sex couples a number of rights.
The divide between state residents comes as gay-rights groups have joined under a single banner—New Yorkers United for Marriage, an umbrella group that is putting pressure lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage this year.
Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a Bronx Democrat and Pentecostal minister who fiercely opposes same-sex marriage, recently issued a plea to Cuomo asking him to put the issue to a popular vote. Diaz noted that every state that has legalized gay marriage has done so by an act of the legislature or the courts, while voters in every state that has held a popular vote have shot it down.
The only time the Senate voted on a same-sex marriage bill was in 2009, when the measure was defeated 38-24. There are now 26 senators who have publicly avowed their support, including local Sens. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown), Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) and Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers).
The region's legislative delegation is divided on the issue along party lines. Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) voted against the legislation as a member of the Assembly in 2009, but now says that he's undecided. In the Assembly, all of the area's Democrats support gay marriage while Republican Bob Castelli does not. Steve Katz, a Yorktown Republican in his first year in office, has not stated his position.
Carlucci last week issued a report claiming the cash-strapped state would see close to $400 million in revenue in the first three years after legalizing same-sex marriage. Most of that would come from tourism and sales taxes.
"It is an embarrassment and a shame on our state that we have not passed a marriage bill yet," Carlucci said. “First and foremost, marriage equality is a human rights issue, but furthermore it will bring much needed revenue into New York State."
Business groups around the state have joined the call, not only because of the potential windfall of revenue but because, they say, allowing same-sex marriage will attract top young talent to the state and aid in New York's economic recovery.
The groups most strongly opposed to gay marriage are the state Conservative Party, which has vowed not to endorse any Republican who votes in favor of the proposal, and the Catholic Church. Last week, Archbishop Timothy Dolan called same-sex marriage "Orwellian social engineering." He went on to call for the state to fix its education system before taking up controversial social issues—a swipe at Cuomo, who slashed education funding in this year's state budget.
A bill to legalize same-sex marriage has already been introduced in the Assembly, where it is expected to pass. Cuomo last week said he would not introduce a bill into the Senate, as his predecessors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson had done, until he's secured the 32 votes necessary to pass it.
Here's a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between May 6 and May 13. As you'll see, it was an action-packed week. There are less than six weeks left in the legislative session, and lawmakers, lobbyists and New Yorkers of all stripes are stepping up their calls for various pieces of legislation.
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) introduced three bills, including a proposal that would prohibit the idling of a car for more than three consecutive minutes. The first violation would result in a warning, with subsequent infractions punishable by a fine of $150.
Another would extend until April 1, 2015 the current prohibition on commercial fishing of striped bass in the Hudson River because of the dangers of consuming PCBs and mercury. The ban has been in place since the late 1970s, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation is considering lifting the ban since the river's water quality has improved.
With our underwater friends in mind, Abinanti also sponsored a measure that would allow the DEC to continue regulating lobster landing.
Abinanti recently launched a YouTube site that features videos of him speaking on the Assembly floor and at press conferences.
As Cuomo took to attacking the legislature in order to force them to pass a 2 percent cap on property tax increases, Castelli last week renewed his call for Assembly Democrats to take up the proposal. The cap has already passed the Senate, but Assembly leaders have said that they may introduce an alternate proposal that includes exemptions for certain costs, including pension contributions for public employees. Castelli's district is one of the wealthiest in the state, and has some of the highest property values.
Castelli on May 10 announced $26,000 in state grants for two local libraries. The Mount Kisco Public Library will receive $6,315 to install a new automatic door, while the Katonah Village Library will get just under $20,000 to build an early literacy station and make a series of renovations, including the installation of energy-efficient lighting.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) introduced one bill, which would provide for equal allocation of staff, state grant money and other resources among all members of the legislature except legislative leaders. Currently, that money is doled out based on seniority and whether a lawmaker is in a majority or minority party. The measure would also consolidate the back-room operations of the Senate and Assembly, such as payroll, research, mail and technology, and appoint a single, nonpartisan person to oversee the allocation of money for office expenses.
Galef next month will hold two days of talks on various topics. On June 8, the assemblywoman will host a round-table discussion on the future of energy use in the area. That event, at Croton High School from 7 to 9 p.m., will feature state, local and energy industry officials. The next day, Galef will moderate a "double feature" at Cortlandt Town Hall: from 3:30 to 5:30 education officials will discuss initiatives to consolidate services among multiple school districts, and from 7 to 9 p.m. county and municipal officials will outline ways for local governments to save money.
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) introduced two bills, one of which would impose a cieling on a homeowner's annual property taxes based on the person's income. The idea, known as a "circuit breaker," has been championed by Democrats for years as a solution to the state's skyrocketing property tax burden. The circuit breaker is the ideological opposite of the cap on annual property tax increases being pushed by Gov. Cuomo and many lawmakers. Jaffee joined other Democrats last week in protesting the cap, calling it "a sound bite, not sound policy." Under Jaffee's proposal, those who earn less than $100,000 would not pay more than 6 percent of their household income in property taxes.
The second bill would establish the Piermont Public Library as the polling place for local library elections.
Jaffee, Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski and Sen. David Carlucci last week gave state transportation officials to call attention to a number of problems, including potholes and flood-prone areas.
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) did not introduce any bills.
Katz on May 9 called on the governor to move ahead with the creation of regional economic development councils. The ten groups, which Cuomo included as part of his budget proposals, will be tasked with drawing up job-creation and development plans for their respective regions. Cuomo has not said exactly when the councils will begin their work.
The assemblyman last week used the occasion of a lobbying day for sportsmen and gun-rights advocates to call for the rejection of a bill that would require guns to be outfitted with microstamps, which allow law enforcement to track weapons. According to Katz, the stamps cost up to $200 per gun, though advocates of the proposal say the cost is much lower. California passed a similar measure in 2007, but its implementation has been put on hold due to a number of issues with the way the law was written.
Katz said he was disappointed with the state's May 11 decision to close the Hudson River Psychiatric Hospital in Dutchess County. The closure of the facility, which currently houses more than 150 patients and serves hundreds of out-patients, is the result of budget cuts that called for the consolidation of 600 beds at state-run mental hospitals.
Katz will hold mobile office hours at Patterson Town Hall on May 18 from 4 to 7 p.m. and a town-hall meeting at Carmel Town Hall on May 19 at 6:30 p.m.
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) did not introduce any bills.
Latimer on May 25 will hold a hearing to allow members of the public to air concerns over recent service delays on the Metro North New Haven line. Those delays have been blamed on construction projects in Connecticut. The hearing will run from 7:30 to 9:15 p.m. at the Mamaroneck Town Center Courtroom. Latimer said he hopes to form a working group of local residents who will meet with Metro North officials.
The assemblyman and County Legislator Judy Myers will hold joint office hours twice on Saturday, May 21: first at Ruby's in Rye from 9:30 to 11:15 a.m., and at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck from 2 to 3:30 p.m.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) introduced three bills, one of which would ban the use of "box dryers," which are heated cages, at pet salons. In the bill memo, Paulin cites a number of instances in which dogs were killed or seriously injured by improper use of the machines. A violation of the ban would be punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) introduced a bill that would create a tax credit of $100 for every $1,000 a restaurant spends on produce grown in New York. Zebrowski says the bill would provide a boost to local farmers and help keep them in the state. Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) has introduced a similar bill, but his proposal would apply only to produce grown within 100 miles of a restaurant.
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) introduced a bill that would pave the way for the creation of a state veterans' cemetery.
Ball on May 6 unveiled an initiative to urge counties to ban protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in combat. The senator is working with officials in Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Dutchess and Orange on the issue, which is a response to the controversial protests staged across the country by the Westboro Baptist Church. In March, the Supreme Court ruled that funeral protests are protected by the First Amendment, in a case brought against Westboro by the father of a soldier killed in Iraq.
On the state level, Ball has sponsored a bill that would prohibit protests within 2,500 feet of a military funeral. If the protesters post a bond to defray the costs of increased security, they would be barred from coming within 500 feet. The Senate passed the bill in March.
Speaking of protests, a number of groups that support the creation of an independent panel to redraw the boundaries of legislative districts held a rally at Pugsley Park in Peekskill on May 14 to call for Ball's support. The groups targeted Ball because he had previously signed a pledge to support independent redistricting, but has since backed Republican leaders in the Senate who are pushing a measure that would effectively put the reforms off for another decade.
Ball, who is pro-life, gave some odd advice to members of the Knights of Columbus, who had come to the Capitol on May 10 to protest pro-choice legislation. Ball half-jokingly advised the protesters to be cautious when speaking to pro-choice lawmakers by first appealing to the cause of environmentalism.
"You walk in there and you say, ‘These sea turtles, they’re so precious. They’re cute, they’re green, they’ve got these little flippers. You’ve got to protect sea turtles,’” he said, according to Gannett News Service's Albany Bureau. “And you say, ‘You know, if you believe it’s important to protect the sea turtles you can help us do the same thing for another species,’” referring to human beings.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee, which Ball chairs, on May 11 passed seven of the bills that the senator drafted as a result of an April 8 hearing on the state's homeland security issues. The measures include tightening port security by requiring background checks for employees of foreign corporations, directing the state to review security at rail yards and increasing the penalties for providing financial support to a terrorist organization.
The senator on May 13 criticized his 40th District predecessor, Vincent Leibell, for "a complete disconnect from reality and justice." Leibell was after pleading guilty to corruption charges. Ball and Leibell are well-known to be political rivals and personal enemies, with the former senator endorsing Ball's Republican primary opponent in last year's election.
Ball on July 10 will hold his annual Victory Cup fundraising event, which is a lavish day of polo matches, Ferraris and a dog parade. The gala will be held at the Greenwich Polo Club, with tickets running between $150 and $9,500. In 2007, the Washington Post ran a piece questioning Ball's use of the event, then known as the Courage Cup, and claiming that some attendees didn't know they were supporting a political campaign.
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) introduced a bill that would allow the town of Stony Point to spread out payments to retired employees over time, instead of making lump-sum payments. Those payments include things like unused sick-leave pay.
Carlucci and his three amigos in the Independent Democratic Conference on May 10 released a report that finds if New York legalizes same-sex marriage, the state would reap $391 million in revenue in the first three years. The report estimates that more than 21,000 in-state couples and 45,000 couples from outside the state would wed, generating about $3.8 million from marriage license fees. The vast bulk - more than $300 million - would come from tourism, sales and hotel taxes and a windfall for the wedding industry.
The freshman on May 12 held a hearing in Stony Point to probe some of the risks related to nuclear power plants. The hearing featured testimony from state and local government officials and representatives from the energy industry. Nuclear safety, particularly at the Indian Point plant in Westchester, has come under increased scrutiny since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. Carlucci was joined by Sens. Greg Ball and George Maziarz, a Republican from Western New York.
More than 60 people attended Carlucci's May 6 screening of "Gasland," a documentary about the alleged perils of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of drilling for natural gas in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are blasted into rock to release gas trapped inside. Much of New York's Southern Tier -- the origin of New York City's drinking water -- sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a massive rock formation valued for its gas reserves.
There has been heated debate in New York and across the country over whether the economic benefits of "hydrofracking" outweigh the potential costs, which include the contamination of air and drinking water. Carlucci has said that he would support hydrofracking if it can be shown to be safe.
The battle over whether sweet corn or onions should be named the state's official vegetable is over, and the winner is... corn. Carlucci had backed onions, which are grown in abundance in the "Black Dirt" region of Orange County. He told reporters last week that he was just glad the issue, which reached such a high profile that the governor was asked to weigh in, had put a spotlight on the state's farmers.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) introduced a bill that would allow the city of New Rochelle to levy a 3 percent tax on the income of telecommunications companies that operate in the city.
Oppenheimer on May 10 announced that more than $360,000 in state grants has been awarded to four libraries in her district for building improvements. The Mamaroneck Public Library will use to complete construction of a children's room and for other projects; the New Rochelle Public Library was awarded $50,000 to turn existing space into a teen area and to install energy-efficient lighting; the Rye Free Reading Room will create new Biography and Teen sections and do a number of renovations with its $100,000 grant; and the Scarsdale Public Library received $111,000 for a new HVAC system.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) did not introduce any bills.
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers on May 9 called for the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, a measure sponsored by Stewart-Cousins and Oppenheimer, among others, that would give women the right to choose or refuse contraception and abortion. The proposal is seen as a defense mechanism against an effort by some lawmakers in Washington to erode those rights on the federal level.
The pitch by the group, which includes Sen. David Carlucci and Assemblywomen Sandy Galef, Ellen Jaffee and Amy Paulin, comes as some Republicans in Congress are seeking to defund Planned Parenthood, which is the primary-care provider for millions of women across the country.
On May 3, Stewart-Cousins sent a letter to Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan MacDonald urging her agency to launch a full investigation into a construction project on I-287. According to an investigative piece in the Journal News, the project is already $200 million over budget because of costly errors and lax oversight. Every member of the Westchester delegation of the Senate and Assembly has expressed concern over the issue. In the letter, the senator says that the DOT's lack of oversight on the project "raises questions as to whether these problems are occurring on other DOT projects statewide."