A Banner Year in Albany – But Basic Problems Remain

Guest Commentary

Volume C, No. 7/8July, 2000

NYS Senator Thomas K. Duane

The 2000 legislative session in Albany is over now – by all accounts, the most productive session in recent memory. Several key pieces of legislation of import to those of us with a progressive agenda finally were passed, in some cases after a decade or more of trying. Much remains to be done, however, and the progress seems so dramatic partly in comparison to the logjam and inaction which characterize most years in Albany.

I’d like to be able to say that the progress which did occur this year happened because a sea change has come over Albany, with a newly opened process and a greater understanding of how to respond to the needs of all New Yorkers. Unfortunately, while some very important legislation was enacted, basic reforms to make the legislative process a fairer and more accessible one largely remained on the shelf. This means that the newfound spirit of cooperation and progress may disappear after the fear and self-interest generated by a particularly volatile election year are replaced by the more complacent, regressive attitude that is more characteristically seen in the State Senate. That is, unless – and there is a good chance that this will happen – the Democrats win the six seats necessary to become the Senate majority.

Let’s look at the good news first. After 11 years of passage by the Democratic-controlled State Assembly, the Republican-controlled State Senate finally allowed a vote on and passed the Hate Crimes bill. This law will help prevent, and will increase penalties for, crimes with a proven motive of bias based on the victim’s perceived race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation.

Also, after years of struggle, we’ve finally passed Clinic Access legislation, so the State will use its resources to protect a woman’s right to access reproductive health care, and to help keep abortion clinic staff safe.

This year saw the passage of a Work Study Internship bill (which I originally introduced), which would waive the requirement that students receiving public assistance work to receive their benefits – a requirement which often forces them to drop out of school. Instead, their time in school and working as interns or as part of a work study program will count toward their work requirement.

And we also saw the passage of dramatic Gun Control legislation in Albany this year, bringing New York to the cutting edge among states in this area. The legislation bans assault weapons, requires trigger locks on handguns, mandates background checks for gun buyers at gun shows, raises the age for handgun purchase from 18 to 21, and establishes a mandatory ballistic fingerprinting database for all new guns sold.

Much remained stymied, however. A long overdue raise in the minimum wage to $6.75 per hour has not yet been acted upon. Nor has real HMO reform or patients rights legislation. Collective bargaining protections for farm workers, and laws holding employers liable for sexual assaults in the workplace for which they are responsible, were not addressed, with the Republican leadership in the State Senate refusing to support them.

There has been no movement on laws introduced to protect Section 8 or Mitchell Lama housing, among our city’s largest sources of decent affordable housing. We made no progress on legislation I have introduced to mandate that newer housing abide by the same rent stabilization laws as older housing, which would also preserve a tremendous chunk of New York’s dwindling affordable housing supply.

The reasons for this year’s progress, and for skepticism about future years, are simple: Many issues which Democrats have been pushing for years were finally approved by Republicans in Albany because they are facing a strong election year threat. Historic Republican defeats in Nassau County, combined with an expected large turnout for a Democratic Presidential candidate, have moved Republicans to embrace a few pressing issues voters will be focused on this November. But without real reform, this change could be fleeting.

Campaign finance reform legislation – which would get the big money influence out of the legislature, and change how the business of government is done in Albany – has not moved. And the State Senate Republican leadership continues to refuse to allow cameras to televise Senate proceedings or stenographers to record committee meetings, denying the public the ability to know what their legislators are really doing or not doing in Albany. (This year finally, at my and Senator Dollinger’s (D-Rochester) urging, Senate sessions were approved for broadcast over the internet.) Opening proceedings to public scrutiny would help break the logjam and force Senators to take up important issues which never seem to move, or even to get debated, and have no chance for a vote they deserve.

Republican Senators are appropriately worried about losing their majority to Democrats this year – but it shouldn’t require election- year jitters to spur government to pass meaningful legislation. Ending the secrecy of legislative proceedings and reforming campaign finance practices would allow New Yorkers to know what their elected officials are really doing in Albany – and more easily send them packing if they don’t like what they see. Maybe then every year would be a banner year in Albany.