Tuesday, June 25, 2013

End of Session Wrap-Up

Advocates and capitol insiders have characterized the 2013 legislative session as 'the session of scandal' or 'Seinfeld lite, much ado about nothing.’ For the League’s legislative agenda it was profoundly disappointing.  As the League's legislative director I have been through sessions where we knew our issues would be a heavy lift – especially in the areas of government reform, whether it was budget reform or voting reform, ethics reform or openness in government – but after three decades of walking the capitol, I really thought we had finally evolved when it came to equality for women. 

Where things stand:

Women’s Equality Act –
As you know by now, The Assembly passed the entire 10 point Women’s Equality Act on Thursday, June 20.  On Friday, June 21, Senator Klein introduced a hostile amendment (the language of the WEA, codifying Roe v. Wade into law) to a bill about medical records.  After a debate about abortion, all Republican Senators and two Democrats voted that the amendment was not germane to the bill.  This procedural vote, by a show of hands, will serve as a record of where the Senators stand on reproductive choice.
After that maneuver, the remaining nine points of the Women’s Equality Act were each introduced as separate bills, debated, and passed (all but one, unanimously). The Assembly refused to consider the separate bills before adjourning on Friday evening.
This leaves us with no law because there is no “same as” bill in either house.  The Assembly could come back some time during this legislative session and pass the same nine points that the Senate did, and I hope that they will. 
Throughout the 1980's and 1990's the League strongly opposed legislation that would roll back reproductive health in NY and we were mostly successful.  So updating New York's law to codify Roe v Wade was not unimaginable.  Boy was I wrong!  It would appear that the Conservative Party with their stranglehold over the Republican Party superseded many Senators need to call themselves pro-choice.  In the Assembly the need to protect Speaker Silver and legislative egos got in the way of making every day women’s' lives better.  In the end New York did not pass any of the Women's Equality Agenda, except for one provision on human trafficking, which extends to 17 from 15 the age at which judges can offer counseling instead of jail time to minors facing prostitution charges.  On a slightly more positive note the League did get much visibility throughout the session on the Women's Equality Agenda traveling to Seneca Falls to introduce the Governor, speaking out on media outlets and at rallies.  

I had hoped that the extraordinary efforts we all put into trying to pass WEA would make us successful, and that we could cross these items off our “to – do” list.  But instead it is time to just take a breather, recoup our energies, and be persistent.
Campaign Finance Reform -

Despite the introduction of three major campaign reform bills (Speaker Silver’s, Governor Cuomo’s program bill, and the IDC’s) and a great deal of public support, yet another session went by without passage of a comprehensive campaign reform bill.  Once again New York State’s leaders missed the opportunity to stem the tide of corruption in Albany and give New Yorkers the transparent, responsive, and ethical state government they deserve.  Reform on this front has, of course, always been a heavy lift in Albany – this is an issue that affects legislators’ election and reelection, and they almost always opt for the status quo. 
While the Assembly passed Speaker Silver’s Fair Election bill back in May, comprehensive campaign finance reform bills were blocked from coming to the floor for a vote in the Senate.  Late last Thursday night, Senate Democrats introduced the Fair Elections bill as a hostile amendment to another bill.  However, the amendment was ruled non-germane – the vote on its germaneness failed to gain enough votes to pass.

We will continue to advocate vigorously until comprehensive campaign finance reform becomes a reality in New York.  Going into the summer, we now look to see what comes of the governor’s Moreland Commission to investigate corruption in Albany. 

Voting Rights –

The Voter Friendly Ballot Act and a bill to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote stood very little chance of passing because the Senate majority likes the way they are elected (i.e. the status quo).  Thus, the bills did not pass this session and next year, an election year, these bills will again stand little chance….Unless, of course, there is a change in how the Senate coalition works (or doesn’t work). 

Hydrofracking –

Although there was much vigorous lobbying by our members and environmental advocacy groups on A.1046/S.674, the bill, which would have required fracking waste to be treated as the hazardous waste it is, died in the Senate Rules Committee (the legislative graveyard).  At the end of session, all bills end up in Rules, which is controlled by leadership and decides what does and does not come to a floor vote.  Like so many other bills this session, A.1046/S.674 was denied a vote on the floor.
Education -

The League did have one victory, an "under the radar" bill that came up very late the last few days of session.  This was legislation that would constitute a burdensome unfunded mandate for school districts by requiring for expensive private special education school placements and services, regardless of whether the placement, program or services made available by the district are appropriate – and regardless of whether the placement, program and services offered by the district are better than those preferred by the student’s parents – so long as the private program/placement preferred by the parent is also appropriate.  We were able, along with many education advocates (including NYSUT, NYS Council of School Superintendents, NYS NAACP, NY Civil Liberties Union, the UFT, School Administrators Association of NYS, NYS School Boards, Big 5 School Districts and NYC DOE) to hold it back in the Assembly after it had passed the Senate (Click here to watch the Senate debate on the bill).

This is a very dangerous bill that would be an "unfunded mandate'" on public school districts.  With the help of Assemblymember Pat Fahey and the upstate Assembly Republicans, we were able to run out the legislative clock.  Late Friday night too many Assembly Democrats had left the capitol and the session ended without addressing this bad bill.  It is sad that our one accomplishment was killing a bad bill and not putting forward any reform legislation.

Friday, June 14, 2013

End of Session Updates

Monday was the 50th anniversary of the day Congress enacted the Equal Pay Act, which requires employers to pay women the same salary they pay men doing the same work. Decked out in 1963 styling (our own Barbara Thomas was rocking some bell-bottoms – I stuck to a dress suit), members of the Women’s Equality Coalition held a press conference to say that, 50 years later, women still don’t have equal pay and we can’t wait another 50 years to take action on the issue – the legislature must enact the WEA now! WEA legislative champions, Assmeblywoman Janet Duprey and Senator Liz Krueger joined us, as well as a former Ms. New York (who we ran into in the LOB before the press conference and was very happy to join us). Check out the Time Union coverage for video of the event (and to see hippy Barb)!

Campaign finance reform was highlighted on Tuesday, as the governor released his three-part public ethics agenda, which includes campaign finance reform. We were pleased to see Governor Cuomo bringing attention to campaign finance reform in these closing weeks of session – his leadership is critical for the passage of a comprehensive campaign finance reform package. We must now urge legislative leaders to bridge the difference between the three major reform packages and bring a vote to the floor. Click here to read the League’s statement released Tuesday. Tuesday also saw yet another anti-SAFE Act rally, though a considerably smaller one than previous months’. The gun-violence issue has been put to rest in the legislature and will now play out in the courts.

On Wednesday, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms (extreme “right to life” advocates hailing primarily from western New York) converged on the capitol by the busload, spreading misinformation and straight-out lies about the reproductive health measure in the WEA. My fellow, Sarah, even overheard some of them telling a senator that “this [bill] is so radical that even pro-choicers don’t want it.” Make sure to correct that lie and keep telling your legislators how important it is to you that they pass the WEA this session! The reproductive health measure of WEA is not an “abortion expansion” as the pro-lifers are so fond of saying – It is merely a codification of Roe into New York law!

As we enter into the final week of session (session is expected to end the end of next week), we see more and more power suits about the capitol. The area outside of the Senate chambers has become much denser with lobbyist (and constituents) jockeying to knock bills down and get others through. As usual, the League will continue to advocate hard for our issues through the end of session.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Power of Women

8 days. That's all that's left in this legislative session. 8 days for the legislature to take action to be remembered for more than corruption and scandal this year. 8 days to pass campaign finance reform. 8 days to pass the Women's Equality Act (WEA). 8 days for them to act on the host of other League issues being stalled in the Senate. We continue to work hard to make this happen.

This past week was largely focused on the Women's Equality Act. Tuesday, June 4th, at a press release attended by the League and the other steering committee members of the Women's Equality Coalition, the governor announced the release of the Women's Equality Act language. During the press conference, various members of the coalition spoke on different points of the 10-point legislation. Brianna, a survivor of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, also told her story and shared her support for the WEA. There didn't see to be a dry eye in the room by the time she was finished speaking.

Following the press release, The League joined the Women's Equality Rally in West Capitol Park. League members, along with many many other organizations and WEA advocates, from across the state were out in force! There were a number of passionate speakers, including Sarah Weddington, attorney who argued Roe v Wade before US Supreme Court, and Cynthia Nixon, TV star of Sex and the City. I spoke after Cynthia Nixon and was joined on stage by a great number of League members (see our website and facebook page for photos). Later I was asked for an encore – i.e. to introduce the governor at Seneca Falls on Wednesday where he spoke about the WEA at the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

Yesterday, the governor's office picked me up at the League office for the three hour drive up to Seneca Falls, where I was joined by League members who came out to support the WEA. It was very exciting to be at this historic site where New York's long struggle for Women's suffrage began. I met Governor Cuomo's car as it arrived and walked with the Governor across the lawn to the chapel (was careful not to get my heels stuck in the lawn so I didn't walk out of my shoes)! I then introduced the event and the list of local elected officials. I spoke about how important Seneca Falls was to women's rights and how important this current Women's Equality Agenda was to achieving equality and fairness for the women of New York.

I then introduced Mylan Denerstein, the governor's counsel, who walked the gathering through the ten point act. The governor then spoke and credited his father for guiding him toward this agenda. (Yes, I did, I called the current governor, “Mario.” I recovered quickly and told the gathering that one of my first legislative victories was with his father on women's equality.. Everyone laughed and it gave Andrew the opportunity to then go on thank me and his father, whew!) The Governor gave an impassioned speech about the societal bias against women and why the WEA is so important. I then closed the event after which the Governor took questions from the local press as he moved toward the door to go on to Vassar college for another WEA event. His staff then drove me the three hours back to the League office. It was a long but very exciting day.

At the rally on Tuesday, the crowd was majorly energized as the sizable Greater Capital Region contingent of the Women's Equality Coalition marched onto the lawn from State Street, chanting “There ain't no power like the power of women 'cause the power of women don't stop!” The power of women was certainly evident at Tuesday's rally. And it was certainly evident in Seneca Falls on Wednesday. We need now to make sure the power of women (and our allies) remains evident on every single one of these final days of the legislative session. Call, write, visit your legislators, NOW! Call, write, visit Senate co-leaders, Senator Klein and Senator Skelos., NOW! Tell them they cannot leave this legislative session without passing the WEA and campaign finance reform. Tell them to bring the bills to the floor on these and other important issues, including hydrofracking waste and GENDA.  At the very least, the people of New York deserve a vote on the issues that matter to them.