State Senate

Parker Wants Good Friday To Be A Holiday

Sen. Kevin Parker is pushing a bill that would make Good Friday a public holiday in New York, following suit with a dozen states in the country.

Good Friday is observed by Christians as the day Jesus Christ died on the cross and is the lead up to the Easter holiday on Sunday.

“The purpose of the legislation is to ensure that New York State recognizes and celebrates the religious diversity of all its citizenry,” Parker said Thursday in a statement. “Currently, Good Friday is a state holiday in 12 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. It is time for New York State to stop lagging behind and recognize Good Friday as a public holiday on behalf of the many observers across our great State.”

Designating Good Friday a holiday would require the closure of non-essential government offices and amend the state’s education law to include Good Friday on the list of holidays for public schools to close in New York.

Bingo Bill Advances

From the Morning Memo:

A bill in the state Senate that would expand the frequency of bingo games senior citizen groups can hold is progressing, the bill’s sponsors on Tuesday said.

The bill would allow senior citizen groups to hold up to two bingo games a week, an expansion from the current law, which restricts playing Bingo games to 15 days during any calendar year.

The measure is limited to so-called “free” Bingo games, with prizes capped at $10 per game and $150 in total distributed throughout the day.

“Bingo is a recreational activity long enjoyed by seniors,” the bill’s sponsors wrote in a memo of support. “It helps to break down the walls of isolation through social interaction. The scheduled activity gives them a reason to get up, get dressed and leave their apartment or room. It increases both their physical and mental activity. It brings a bit of excitement to their day.”

The bill was approved earlier this month in the state Senate, where it is backed by Sen. Toby Stavisky. It is yet to pass in the Assembly, where it’s sponsor by Assemblyman David Rosenthal.

What The MERIT Scholarship Does

Last week, Democratic lawmakers in the state Assembly voted to block a Republican effort to expand tuition assistance for family members and dependents of those who died while serving in the military.

The incident led to firestorm of criticism, including a tweet from President Donald Trump and, in recent days, Democratic support for the measure.

As lawmakers pointed out, New York already provides tuition aid to Gold Star families through the The Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute Scholarship program.

Here’s a quick rundown of the program, the bill and the controversy:

1. What does MERIT currently do?

The scholarship in the current 2018-19 school year provides up to $24,250 for students living on campus. Students who commute can receive up to 15,750. The scholarship provides assistance for in-state tuition costs, room and board and allowances for books, supplies and transportation up to the average cost at SUNY Colleges.

Students who qualify for the program must be studying at an approved college in New York, have graduated from high school in the United States, be enrolled as a full-time student, and not be in default of any state or federal student loans.

2. Who qualifies?

The scholarship currently applies to family members or dependents of those who have died or became severely and permanently disabled as a result of their military service while in a combat zone or died as a result of preparing to enter a combat zone, or those who are classified as missing in action.

3. What does the bill do?

There are multiple versions of the bill, but in essence all would expand the existing scholarship to Gold Star families who have had a military member of the family “die in the performance of his or her official duties.”

4. Why the controversy?

Republicans in the state Assembly are in a virtually powerless minority in the Democratic-dominated Assembly. This makes it difficult for any of their bills to get to the floor for a full vote in the chamber without Democratic help. Republicans at a meeting of the Assembly Higher Education Committee last week sought a vote on their bill to expand the MERIT scholarship program. The bill was defeated, with Committee Chairwoman Deborah Glick noting the measure was being considered after the state budget and has a fiduciary impact. Lawmakers have in the past approved bills with a financial impact on the budget, opening them to gubernatorial vetoes.

Pushing controversial bills is a common tactic for the minority conferences, especially in the state Senate, where so-called “hostile” amendments can force majority party lawmakers to take tough or embarrassing votes.

In the aftermath, Republicans blasted Democrats for blocking the legislation, pointing to the recently approved state budget that provides access to tuition assistance programs to undocumented immigrants. President Trump on Twitter also took up the cause after the news made national headlines, in many instances not noting the existing MERIT program.

5. What’s going to happen next?

Democratic Sen. John Brooks has introduced legislation in the state Senate that would virtually do what Republicans sought in the Assembly: Expand the MERIT program. The biggest difference for Brooks’s bill is that it would take effect on April 1 of next year, presumably when the next state budget is in place, satisfying concerns the measure would not be paid for after passing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week signaled his support for the proposal.

Bill Expanding Tuition Help For Gold Star Families Gets Senate Backing

Democratic Sen. John Brooks on Monday announced the introduction of a bill that would expand a program for tuition aid to Gold Star families in New York.

“Our heroic servicemembers who fall in the line of duty and make the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation are owed a debt of gratitude that can never truly be repaid,” Senator John E. Brooks said. “That is why I am proud to sponsor legislation that will ensure their children are provided free tuition for all SUNY and CUNY schools. I will continue to work with my colleagues in State government to have this important legislation passed into law.”

The bill was introduced days after Republicans in the state Assembly sought to force a similar measure in the chamber’s Higher Education Committee, which was blocked. The issue caught the attention of national outlets and led to a tweet from President Donald Trump.

A program covering tuition expenses for Gold Star families who lose a loved one while in combat or in preparation for combat, called MERIT, currently exists in New York for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

Brooks’s legislation would expand the program to include families members of military personnel who have died as a result of their official duties, have become permanently disabled or are classified as missing in action.

Assembly Democrats in recent days have also said they would be supportive of expanding the program.

The measure has the backing of Gene Ratigliano, the state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“The Veterans of Foreign Wars is very grateful to Senator Brooks for the support of this bill to provide educational benefits to the family survivors of our fallen comrades who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our freedoms,” Ratigliano said in a statement.

“This bill is especially important for those young military members who have young families and are usually at the lower end of the pay scale thus providing their survivors the opportunity to seek college educational opportunities they would otherwise be unable to secure. Passage of this bill will not only open the doors to educational opportunities for the military survivors but make those utilizing these benefits be better citizens enabling them to also better their communities in which they live.”

Holyman Wants Bill Giving Benefits To Discharged LGBT Veterans

A bill sponsored by Sen. Brad Hoylman would provide state benefits to veterans discharged due to their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Hoylman called for the passage of the measure as the military’s ban on transgender troops serving in the military goes into effect on Friday.

“Trump’s transgender military ban is nothing short of state-sponsored discrimination,” Hoylman said. “This is a cruel, arbitrary policy that only dehumanizes our transgender service members, who deserve our respect, and jeopardizes our national security.”

The bill, known as the Restoration of Honor Act, would apply to veterans discharged due to sexual orientation or gender identity and is sponsored by Democrat David Buchwald in the Assembly. The measure was introduced after the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, allowing veterans who were previously discharged access to state veterans benefits.

“If Washington won’t stand up for the dignity of transgender Americans, it is up to New York to set an example,” Hoylman said.

Stewart-Cousins To Syracuse

From the Morning Memo:

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins today will be in Syracuse, an upstate city where Democrats have sought to make in-roads for the Legislature.

Stewart-Cousins’s stops will include a trip to the future home of the Onondaga County STEAM School, a roundtable discussion with local elected officials and remarks to a meeting of the Democratic Rural Conference at night.

Accompanying her on the trip will be Syracuse Democratic Sen. Rachel May, who defeated Sen. David Valesky, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, in a primary last year.

“Education is the great equalizer in our society and the new Onondaga County STEAM School will be an amazing asset for a new generation of Central New York students,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.

“I commend Senator Rachel May on her leadership and advocacy for the new STEAM School in Onondaga County as well as for the entire Syracuse Surge initiative. With leaders like Senator Rachel May in the Senate Majority, we will continue to improve the economic strength and quality of life for Central New York communities.”

The upstate swing for the Yonkers Democrat comes as lawmakers are on a two-week break from Albany following the passage of the state budget.

HTC To Protest Skoufis’s Office

C2C469CB-25CB-4963-B17A-30024C7CDD29From the Morning Memo:

The Hotel Trades Council on Friday will hold a protest outside of the Hudson Valley district office of Sen. James Skoufis after he wrote on Twitter the union was acting like “unprofessional thugs” over his online rental legislation supported by Airbnb.

At least 50 members from HTC will protest outside the lawmaker’s office wearing pink t-shirts and caps that say, “Is This What A Union Thug Looks Like.”

The union noted 90 percent of its membership is composed of people of color and is 60 percent female.

In a statement, Skoufis’s office said the lawmaker is backer of labor unions, but also pointed to the need for turning to new technologies.

“Senator Skoufis has been a staunch supporter of organized labor and believes we can both embrace innovation and equally protect local community interests,” said Skoufis spokeswoman Jessica Gulotta.

“Unfortunately, HTC is clearly more interested in hurling baseless personal attacks than having a substantive policy conversation. We hope the protestors they’re bussing into the district enjoy their time in the Hudson Valley.”

The dustup between Skoufis and the union stems from a bill meant to allow Airbnb, Home Away and other online home rental sites to operate and be regulated in New York. HTC, a politically key labor union, has vehemently opposed efforts for Airbnb to expand in the state.

The union has also pointed to the $498,273 Airbnb’s political action committee spent in the Hudson Valley district supporting Skoufis’s election last year to a battleground swing district.

Skoufis Versus HTC

From the Morning Memo:

A dispute over legislation supported by the online rental company Airbnb this week has led to a blow up between Sen. James Skoufis and the Hotel Trades Council, a politically influential labor union.

Skoufis this week announced a bill with Assemblyman Joe Lentol that would create a new regulatory framework for rental sites like Airbnb and HomeAway, limit one home per listing, require the payment of sales, city and occupancy taxes and ban short-term rentals in affordable housing.

The measure, though, is opposed by an anti-Airbnb coalition led by the Hotel Trades Council, and with lawmakers opposed to the bill arguing it can harm the availability of affordable housing, primarily in New York City.

On Wednesday, Skoufis tweeted a screenshot of a text conversation with HTC’s political director, Jason Ortiz, who had requested a meeting with the lawmaker. Skoufis initially agreed, only to cancel after seeing a tweet by HTC critical of him.

Skoufis called the union’s representatives “unprofessional thugs” and “thuggery” when posting the text conversation.

An unusual degree of transparency, perhaps, but also is poking a politically potent organization that has played a role in moving legislation through Albany, has ties to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and has been a cornerstone for voter turnout in the state.

“It’s deeply disappointing in a time when unions are under attack across the country that anyone in labor-friendly New York would use the word ‘thuggery’ in describing a union that is made up so heavily of workers who are women and people of color,” Ortiz said in a statement. “It’s OK to disagree, but we must do better than throwing around hateful words like thuggery.”

Skoufis was elected to a Hudson Valley Senate seat last year vacated by Republican Sen. Bill Larkin.

The fight over Airbnb is not dissimilar to controversies that have stemmed from “gig economy” businesses like ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber.

But the fight comes amid a coming battle over rent control regulations, due to expire in June, which is expected to center around housing affordability statewide.

Senate Approves Bills Cracking Down On Authorities, Commissions

The state Senate on Wednesday approved a package of bills aimed at providing more transparency for public bodies created through executive order and allow regulators to suspend officials at public authorities.

The bills target aspects of state and local government that have, at times, acted in secret or behind closed doors while also providing teeth to the Authorities Budget Office.

One bill, sponsored by Sen. James Skoufis, would require entities created through executive order be subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law.

“In keeping with recent legislative initiatives aimed at greater transparency, these bodies should be open to public scrutiny. The work of our state’s public bodies has a profound effect on the functioning of government and it is essential to our democratic process that members of the public are fully aware of and have the opportunity to observe the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy,” the bill’s memo states.

Another measure would allow the Authorities Budget Office to suspend board members and executive staff at public authorities, semi-public entities that are created to borrow outside of normal bonding procedures.

The bill has the backing of the good-government group Reinvent Albany.

“This bill is an important step forward for transparency and accountability in local authority boards,” the group said. “Under current law, boards may avoid filing required forms altogether without facing any serious penalty, as the ABO’s punitive actions are limited to warning and censuring members or publishing reports about noncompliance. Consequently, as of February 2019, 119 authorities – more than 20 percent of public authorities in the state – had not met the deadline for submitting a required report.”

Senate Republicans Want More Hearings On Farmworker Bill

Republican lawmakers in the state Senate on Wednesday called for more public hearings on a bill that is meant to strengthen labor protections for farmworkers in New York.

The lawmakers, Sens. Pam Helming and Rob Ortt, wrote to the Democratic chairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Senate Labor Committee, calling for hearings than the three that have scheduled.

The hearings have been planned for Nassau, Sullivan and Madison counties. Republicans want hearings in other parts of upstate New York that have regional specific farm industries.

The measure would apply new labor protections for farmworkers to have overtime and allow farm workers to collectively bargain.

“Agriculture is the leading industry in our region and upstate New York State. Our local and state economy relies on our farmers and farm families,” Helming said. “The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act would have a devastating impact on the industry as a whole, especially our small family operations, and their hardworking employees.”

Along with Helming and Ortt, Sens. Bob Antonacci, George Amedore, Rich Funke, Jim Tedisco, Chris Jacobs Daphne Jordan, Betty Little, Tom O’Mara, and Fred Akshar signed the letter seeking more hearings.
which would reduce net farm income by a staggering 23 percent.