Thursday, February 14, 2013

Education, Elections, & Guns

As usual, our issue specialists were quite busy this week, but a couple got a chance to share what they've been up to.

Education specialist, Marian Bott, attended The Alliance for Quality Education of New York's (AQENY) policy conference on Monday, along with busloads of students and parents from all over the state. Marian said the speakers at the conference painted an accurate picture of what public education looks like on-the-ground now and how it differs from what it was four years ago before experiencing major funding cuts. Some of the most compelling speakers were those giving personal testimony, like Zakiyah Ansari of AQE who discussed what educational opportunities have and have not been available to her children over the years due to inequitable education funding. Educate NY NOW!, the education coalition that the League joined this past summer, was distributing and collecting postcards to send to elected officials, demanding equitable education funding. Postcards can be requested on Education NY NOW!'s website.

Government specialist, Aimee Allaud, is tracking bills on early voting, same-day voter registration, and ballot structure in the Assembly Election Law Committee. Aimee attended the committee's meeting this past Tuesday where Assemblyman Kavanagh's bill on ballot structure passed the committee with unanimous support. The bill, which the League supports, would create a ballot layout that is easier for voters to read and use. It will now be going to the Assembly floor, where it passed last year, but then wasn't acted on by the Senate. The other bills for which the League is advocating were not moved forward or discussed during Tuesday's meeting. The League will continue to advocate for measures that increase voter participation and will be meeting with legislators in the coming weeks to discuss early voting.

While at the capitol on Tuesday, Aimee also attended, as an observer, a rally in support of the NY SAFE Act. The rally was organized by One-Milliom Mom's Against Gun Violence and included several busloads of young people from NYC. During a pre-rally meeting, many youth shared personal testimony about how gun violence has touched their lives. The group then proceeded en masse to the million dollar staircase where several legislators were in attendance and spoke on the importance of the SAFE Act. There was a counter demonstration outside of the capitol, but there was no interaction between the two groups.

Also, this just in – the LWVNY board has voted to officially join the New York Women's Equality Coalition, the coalition of organizations working to pass the governor’s women's equality agenda! We will keep you updated as we move forward with this exciting legislation that would mean major progress in the everyday lives of women across the state.

Finally, the legislature is not in session next week so please check back in two weeks for our next blog post.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Short, But Exciting Week

We’re now more than half way through the budget hearings and this past Monday’s hearing on environmental conservation was even more contentious than the education hearing.  A League member was able to attend the hearing and report back to us on the happenings.   Fracking, of course, dominated the hearing and there was a major turnout of anti-fracking activists – so large a turnout that our volunteer nearly did not make it into the packed hearing room.  The morning started with DEC Commissioner, Joe Martins, in the hot seat, being grilled about the potential health and economic impacts of hydrofracking.  Martins’s answers bunted a number of the health issues back to DOH and also confirmed that there isn’t any funding in this year’s budget for DEC operations that would oversee fracking.  A number of Martins’s answers drew boos and groans from the audience.  The most cheers and applauds came during Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton’s questions and comments.   Lifton criticized the DEC’s process in developing the environmental impact report, calling the process “convoluted and not transparent.”  She later highlighted a report from Pennsylvania that 400 families in Washington County need to have water delivered due to contamination of their water supply caused by fracking.  The assemblywoman went on to say that the public does not even have all the information about instances like this because of industry nondisclosure agreements and a recent gag order placed on doctors in Pennsylvania.  She concluded with asking Commissioner Martins “Does it make you uncomfortable to hear these things coming out of Pennsylvania?”  The commissioner responded that he’s uncomfortable with any instance of corporate irresponsibility, but that he thinks it unfair to paint the entire drilling industry as irresponsible.   As the Commissioner’s testimony concluded, the large crowd started chanting “Not one well.”  The protest continued out into the hall and then over to the Million Dollar Staircase where an anti-fracking rally was held.  The League supported the issuing of the moratorium on hydrofracking.  Click here for more on the League’s position.
Tuesday was a much quieter day, but an exciting one as it was LWVNY’s lobby day!  There was a great turnout from leagues ranging from all the way from Rochester to NYC and many more.   Attendees got to meet over bagels and coffee and listen to League issue specialists discuss League legislative priorities on healthcare, early voting and absentee ballots, reproductive choice, pay equity, hydrofracking, campaign finance reform, and financing education.   After the morning workshop, attendees got to see just how crowded the Capitol CafĂ© gets during lunch, as about 20 of us tried to squeeze in and grab some lunch before touring the capitol and the Legislative Office Building.  Many league members visited with their legislators (or legislative staff) to discuss the League’s policy agenda.  It was a great day and we hope even more will join us next year!
We’re still continuing to meet with new legislators to introduce them to the League and discuss our policy agenda.  Meetings are going well, and will start to pick up post-budget as the legislature starts to turn its attention to things like campaign finance reform and women’s equality. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Busy Week at the Capitol

Budget negotiations between leadership in the legislature and the governor aren’t expected to be too contentious this year, but that doesn’t mean the hearings aren’t without some rancor.  On Tuesday, after sitting in on the Attorney General’s hearings on proposed new disclosure requirements for nonprofits (more on that in a moment), we stopped by the Elementary & Secondary Education budget hearing just in time to watch NYC legislators rip into UFT over the failure of the teacher’s union and Mayor Bloomberg to reach an agreement on a teacher evaluation system – a failure that under the Cuomo administration has meant a loss in $250 million so far in state aid to NYC schools for the past year.  Bloomberg was also blasted during hearings on Monday.  What we heard from NYC lawmakers is that the loss of the $250 million in state aid apparently reduces the baseline for funding to NYC schools each following year as well – making the punitive action felt well beyond one fiscal year.   Marion Bott, the League’s Education Finance Issue Specialist rejoining the league after completing her doctorate, testified later that evening about equitable funding of our public schools. 

Getting back to the Attorney General’s hearing –
It was obviously a much much more subdued and shorter hearing than were the budget hearings on education.   AttorneyGeneral Schneiderman has announced new regulations to require nonprofits to disclose independent expenditures they use to influence the outcome of elections.  The League supports these efforts to provide more transparency and to help protect the integrity of New York elections, but League President, Sally Robinson, used her expertise as a tax lawyer during her testimony to suggest some improvements to the proposed regulations.  Testimony from Senators Latimer and Addabos illustrated the role of shadowy 501(c)(4) organizations in influencing NY elections in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  Both Senators ran tight races during which they were the target of very negative ads from a 501(c)(4) called Common Sense Principles, an organization based in Virginia about which Senator Addabos noted that, to this day, neither he nor his constituents know who they are or how they are funded.  However, information about this group’s expenditures was just released under state lobbying regulations to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Also of note this week –
During our visits to the capitol this week, we got to hear firsthand about some of the confusion/misinformation about late-term abortion surrounding the Reproductive Health Act components that are in the Governor’s proposed Women’s Equality Act.   To be clear, Roe v. Wade allows for late term abortions when a woman’s life or health is at risk and that is currently the law of the land. Because New York law was never fully updated to reflect the reproductive rights established by the courts and federal law, it does not include a health exception.  That means, should Roe ever be overturned or chipped away at until the point of ineffectiveness, a pregnant woman in New York whose health becomes at risk would not be able to access an abortion later in her pregnancy, even as her health deteriorates. The League has just signed onto the Governor’s ten-point Women’s Equality Agenda, and as we move forward with the struggle for women’s equality, this is the kind of misinformation we will have to fight.

The League also submitted testimony in the health budget hearings under our long held position on disease prevention/health promotion.   As most league members know, budget hearings often go on for hours and hours and hours and certainly the advocates testifying at the health hearings waited well into the evening.   Blair Horner, vice president of the American Cancer Society, testified to the Cancer Society’s concern that this executive budget will consolidate numerous prevention programs into a competitive “pool” (a la Hunger Games).  However given the lack of transparency, we really do not know how much if any dollars will be invested into the tobacco prevention program. 
Next week the league will be testifying at hearings about the Board of Elections.  Stay tuned for more on that issue.