Repealing a controversial payroll tax that benefits the cash-strapped and scandal-scarred Metropolitan Transit Authority has been one of the top priorities of many Hudson Valley lawmakers this year, but with the session set to end this week, the proposal appears to be headed for the shelf.
A bill that would gradually repeal the two-year-old tax in suburban counties, including Westchester, Rockland and Putnam, passed the Senate last week. But the measure stalled in the Assembly, where members from New York City are concerned that eliminating the tax—and the more than $800 million in revenue that comes with it—could lead to fare hikes on subways and buses.
Opponents of the tax, which amounts to 34 cents for every $100 of payroll for public and private employers in the city and seven other counties, say it's killing small business owners and local governments already reeling from the recession. Further, they say, the tax unfairly hits all local residents, even those who don't use MTA's services.
"Our local governments, non-profits, churches and synagogues and small businesses simply do not rely on MTA services the way their city counterparts do," said Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye), who sponsored the bill.
The measure would decrease the tax rate each year until it was eliminated in the suburbs in 2014. School districts and businesses with 25 or less employees would be exempt starting Jan. 1, 2012. The tax rate would stand at 21 cents for every $100 in New York City.
Latimer's bill enjoys broad bipartisan support in the suburbs, including the co-sponsorship of Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown), but doesn't have the backing of the New York City delegation, which holds 86 of the chamber's 150 seats.
"The New York City Assembly members want suburban resources to help keep this system fully funded," Latimer said.
Katz, a freshman, criticized Assembly leaders for holding a vote to legalize same-sex marriage last week without addressing the MTA tax and other economic issues.
"One's sexual orientation or position on same-sex marriage will not mean anything if you cannot afford to live in New York State," said Katz, who voted against the marriage bill.
The bill passed in the Republican-led Senate with relative ease. The measure includes more than $460 million in additional revenue for the MTA, including $100 million in federal money meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson), a co-sponsor of the measure, had some harsh words for the MTA and Democrats seeking to keep the tax in place.
"We're not talking about a scarcity of resources, we're talking about an authority that has corruption down at their headquarters, including mob infiltration and project over-runs to the tune of 200 or 300 percent," Ball said, alluding to two of the many allegations lobbed at the MTA over the last decade.
"If paying taxes is your patriotic duty, I'm certainly proud to know that I live in the most patriotic state in the United States of America," Ball opined.
Putnam and Rockland counties paid about $150,000 and $630,000 respectively in 2010. Westchester, which recently laid off 10 percent of its workforce, is expected to shell out $1.3 million this year, down from $1.5 million last year. But officials are even more concerned about the impact the tax is having on small businesses and job creation.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino "is disappointed that something is not being done to get rid of this tax. The payroll tax is destructive and job-killing," said county spokeswoman Donna Greene.
Ball and other co-sponsors of the Senate bill have suggested a number of cost-saving measures for the MTA, including curbing overtime and "pension padding," privatizing New York City's bus system and selling some buildings and other assets.
But one Democratic aide in the Assembly with knowledge of talks about MTA said those suggestions are either impractical or too small to make up for the lost tax revenue.
"Most of those things are a few million dollars here and there, but you're still left with a hole of tens of millions of dollars, and that's only going to be fixed with fare hikes," said the aide, who requested anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to the press.
"If you represent Harlem or a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn," he continued, "good luck getting people to go along with fare hikes when you're looking at 9 percent unemployment."
Here's a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between June 10 and June 17, the last full week of this year's legislative session:
At a hearing last week that probed alleged widespread abuse and neglect at state-run homes for the developmentally disabled, Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) criticized the Commission on Quality of Care, a state agency tasked with monitoring group homes. According to the New York Times, which in March ran a feature that detailed the alleged abuses, Abinanti said the oversight structure appears to be ineffective. "What I'm hearing from you is that your commission doesn't really seem to know what it's supposed to be doing," Abinanti said to CQC chief Roger Bearden. The assemblyman's son is autistic, and he is one of the legislature's top advocates for people with disabilities.
The Assembly on June 14 passed a bill sponsored by Abinanti that would require lever voting machines to remain locked until 15 days prior to the next election, unless a machine needs to be checked for malfunctions. The security measure was stripped from state law earlier this year because lever machines are technically banned under federal law, but the state has allowed some local governments and school districts to continue to use them.
Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) applauded the passage of a comprehensive ethics reform package that will require lawmakers to disclose outside income in detail, as well as the identity of legal or business clients with business before the state. The assemblyman pointed out that most of the bill's provisions, including stripping the pensions of public officials convicted of felonies related to the abuse of their office, were included in bills he had previously sponsored.
The Assembly last week passed two of Castelli's bills. One would designate court attendants in Harrison as peace officers, allowing them to take the place of police officers. The move would save the town and village money on police overtime.
The second bill would designate Route 119 in Westchester as Detective Michael Perry Memorial Highway. Perry was a White Plains police officer who last June after chasing down a shoplifting suspect at the Galleria Mall.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) will host her annual Senior Forum on July 7 at Cortlandt Town Hall from 9 a.m. to noon. The event will feature talks on consumer scams targeted at seniors, federal proposals to change Medicare, disaster preparedness and nutritious eating.
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) was given a promotion of sorts by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as she was named Secretary of the Majority Conference last week. In that role, Jaffee will help develop strategy and policy initiatives. She will receive a stipend, known as a "lulu" in Albany parlance, but the amount was not immediately disclosed.
Jaffee, Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski and Sen. David Carlucci were among the local officials on hand in Nyack on June 12 for a sponsorsed by Volunteer Clinical Services. The event came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and gay-rights advocates stepped up a push to legalize same-sex marriage this year.
The Assembly and Senate last week passed a bill co-sponsored by Jaffee that would ban smoking on all MTA railroad platforms. The assemblywoman said MTA supports the measure, which must be signed by the governor to become law.
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) introduced a bill that would exempt the widows and widowers of police officers, firefighters and paramedics who die in the line of duty from paying an unspecified portion of their property taxes. The spouse must not be re-married to qualify for the exemption, which would apply only to a primary residence.
The U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance last week blasted a bill sponsored by Katz that would require anyone who wishes to breed dogs to apply for an annual permit and be held to the same standards as certified pet dealers. The group's director of state services, Evan Heusinkveld, said “there is simply no justification for applying this type of regulation to these dog owners.”
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) introduced a bill that gives the newly formed Department of Financial Services authority to investigate auto insurance fraud, including lying about one's address.
A June 10 article in The Deal magazine looks at a proposal by Latimer that would make operating a pirate radio station a felony punishable by a fine of at least $10,000. In the article, Latimer says many of his colleagues don't realize the extent of the problem, and that his bill is designed as a deterrent to running a pirate station.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) introduced a bill that would require most health insurance policies to cover prescriptions for enteral formula, which is given to people who have difficulty digesting most food. Currently, most health plans cover only the administration of the formula, but not its initial cost. The bill, dubbed "Hannah's Law," is named after a six-year-old girl whose family pays more than $4,000 a year for enteral formula.
Another bill would clarify existing law by ensuring that destitute children— those with no parents—are guaranteed so-called "kinship guardian assistance payments," which is money given to grandparents or other relatives raising a child.
Paulin last week joined the New York State Coalition for Local Control, an ad hoc group comprised mainly of school board members and other school officials from Westchester and Putnam, in decrying the proposed cap on annual property tax increases. Paulin said the cap would not provide tax relief without doing "irreversible" damage to local school districts, and called for relief from state mandates.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) introduced a bill that would allow public employers, including local governments, who participate in a program that allows them to spread out employee pension contributions over a five-year period to finance those payments with bonds. Currently the payments can only be financed through the comptroller's office, but Zebrowski said bonding could provide a lower interest rate. The year-old program has been less popular than expected, and Zebrowski's bill could make it more attractive. In a memo, he says Rockland County could save $1.3 million through bonding.
Another bill would require local boards of election to store only 10 copies of unused ballots for two years after an election. Currently, all unused ballots must be kept for that period, leading to a burdensome cost for election boards. The bill also requires unused ballots to be recycled.
Zebrowski as local education officials stepped up their opposition. While opponents of the cap say it will do harm to school districts, Zebrowski argued that property taxes are currently "unsustainable" and need to be tackled.
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) introduced a bill that would require applicants for public assistance benefits, such as welfare, to submit to a drug test. Failure of the test would result in a denial of benefits. The measure would not apply to people 65 or older. Assemblyman Keith Wright, a Harlem Democrat, blasted the proposal for being "nearsighted" and an invasion of privacy.
Ball continued to be the center of attention in the same-sex marriage debate as two Republican senators last week avowed their support for the legislation. Ball is seen as a key undecided vote, but has repeatedly said he would vote 'no' unless rigorous exemptions are included to protect religious organizations. He drew the ire of Gov. Cuomo, who introduced the marriage bill, for "misinterpreting" the exemption provisions of the legislation. Ball fired back that those exemptions were not specific enough to prevent facilities run by religious groups, such as catering halls, from being sued for refusing to accommodate same-sex weddings.
Each year, every member of the Senate chooses one veteran from his or her district to be inducted into the state's Veterans Hall of Fame. Ball's choice this year was Karl Rohde, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who lives in Carmel. Rohde is a town councilman in Kent, Putnam County's historian and an active member of a number of veteran's organizations.
The Senate last week passed two bills sponsored by Ball that relate to protests at military funeral. The first would triple, from 100 to 300 feet, the closest protesters could get to a religious service or funeral. The second bill would require the state to develop a permit process for demonstrations at military funerals. The bills, which have also passed the Assembly and await the governor's signature, were introduced in reaction to protests by the Westboro Baptist Church.
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) introduced a bill that would direct the state Division of Criminal Justice Services to publish a brochure outlining the resources available to the public for conducting criminal background checks.
Like most of his colleagues, Carlucci spoke out in support of ethics reform legislation that passed both chambers last week. The freshman senator said New Yorkers "deserve to trust that their elected officials are working honorably and ethically on their behalf."
The Senate last week passed a handful of Carlucci's bills, one of which would streamline the process that allows local governments and school districts to consolidate health care services and other administration operations.
Another bill would commence a forensic, or "top-to-bottom," audit of the beleaguered Metropolitan Transit Authority. Forensic audits are designed specifically to root out corruption and other inappropriate activity. A third bill would save the state up to $30,000 each year by reducing the number of hard copies of documents that must be filed with judicial libraries.
The freshman received the second-lowest ranking of any Democratic senator on a scorecard put together by EPL/Environmental Advocates. Carlucci received a score of 20, significantly lower than the average score of 42 for Democrats. The scorecard measures lawmakers' commitment to environmental issues by tracking their votes on a number of bills.
Former Spring Valley Police Chief Howard Goldin, who served as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam, was Carlucci's pick for the Veterans Hall of Fame. Goldin suffered multiple gunshot wounds and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, among other medals. He is a past president of Vietnam Veterans of America, and currently resides in Airmont.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) introduced a local bill that would designate court attendants in the town and village of Harrison as peace officers. In New York, law enforcement officials with peace officer status have greater powers, such as the ability to make warrantless arrests and issue summonses. Court attendants have a range of responsibilities, such as making announcements, signing in defendants and chaperoning juries. The bill is designed to save Harrison money by cutting down on police overtime.
The senator was ranked seventh out of 62 senators on a scorecard released by advocacy group EPL/Environmental Advocates that measures lawmakers' commitment to environmental issues. Oppenheimer received a score of 57 out of 100, considerably higher than the average score of 41 for Democratic senators. Patch columnist Jaclyn Bruntfield last week took .
Oppenheimer selected Army Sergeant William Capodanno of Larchmont, a World War II veteran, to be inducted into the Veterans Hall of Fame. Capodanno served in the Pacific Theater from 1941 to 1946 and received a number of service medals. He served as a volunteer firefighter in the town of Mamaroneck and has been an active member of VFW Post 1156.
The Senate last week passed a bill sponsored by Oppenheimer that would allow SUNY Purchase to lease some of its land to build a senior residential learning center. At least 20 percent of the units at the center would be reserved for low-income tenants, with half of those units reserved for Westchester residents. The bill also requires 75 percent of the revenue generated by the center to be used to provide tuition assistance to Purchase students. An identical bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, passed the Assembly last week. It now goes to the governor for his signature.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) applauded the June 13 passage of an ethics reform package that will require lawmakers to disclose outside income in detail and will establish a new 14-member ethics panel with the power to launch investigations when lawmakers are suspected of breaching ethics laws. The senator noted that the legislation is "not perfect," but said it ushers in "a more transparent and responsible system of government."
The senator ranked sixth in her chamber on a scorecard released by EPL/Environmental Advocates. She received a score of 59, compared to an average of 41 for Democrats and 32 for all senators. The rankings are based on the way lawmakers voted on a handful of key environmental bills.
The senator's pick for the Veterans Hall of Fame was , a Pleasantville resident and member of the Army Nursing Corp who was put in charge of the emergency room at Abu Ghraib prison shortly after the media uncovered widespread abuse and torture of prisoners. Mercado-Sconzo later served in Iraq. The Brooklyn native was raised in a foster home, and Stewart-Cousins commended her for her accomplishments.