End of Session Wrap-Up

By Kieran Lalor, on Jun 21, 2016

Good news, the legislative session is over! It ended in the wee hours on Saturday morning. I welcome the end of session because as former New York State assemblyman turned surrogate judge, Gideon John Tucker (1826-1899) said long ago, "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session."

Here are the highlights, lowlights and missed opportunities of the recently concluded legislative session:

Highlights

 1. Ethics: After years of an Albany culture where politicians were more concerned with looking out for one another than then were concerned with doing right by the public, we finally passed a law to strip public pensions from politicians and "policy makers" convicted of corruption charges.This goes a long way to restoring public confidence in government. Crooked politicians shouldn't receive a dime in pensions from taxpayers. Not a dime. This always seemed like common sense. It's finally the law. However, the legislature did miss the opportunity for more sweeping ethics reform legislation that would have stripped pensions from any public employee convicted of corruption. That larger reform would have, for example, taken away the public pension from the prison worker who helped the two dangerous prisoners escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, costing taxpayers millions and putting countless lives at risk.

2. Combating Heroin: A series of bills were passed to combat the heroin epidemic that is plaguing New York. Insurance companies will be required to provide improved coverage to patients. The prescription limit for opioids is reduced to seven days. Hospitals will be required to provide patients with follow-up treatment options upon discharge. These are all positive steps to tackle the heroin epidemic head on.

3. Mandate Relief: The legislature passed a significant piece of mandate relief legislation that will save Dutchess County $3.7 million by requiring the state to fund indigent legal services. I'm proud to say that I was a cosponsor on this bipartisan bill.

Lowlights

1. Expanded Hollywood Tax Credits: Unfortunately, the legislature expanded the Hollywood tax credits. Filmmakers are now eligible for an additional 10% tax credit in much of the state. This is supposed to level the playing field in the application of the tax credit. It's ironic that the beneficiaries of corporate welfare were whining that it was unfair for some parts of the state to get better tax treatment than others. The Hollywood tax credit carves out special tax treatment for a tiny part of our economy. The rest of the state's taxpayers are left with a heavier load in a state that already has the highest taxes in the nation. If we wanted to level the playing field in how the subsidy is applied around the state, we should reduce the subsidy in the counties where it's higher.

2. Subsidies for Music and Video Game Industries: In addition to the waste, fraud, abuse and potential for pay-to-play that comes with corporate welfare, another byproduct is that it encourages other industries and companies to ask for taxpayer funded subsidies. Film producers have been getting $420 million a year, so music and video game producers want in on the action. The legislature passed a $25 million per year subsidy for video game makers and another $25 million per year subsidy for the music industry. Meanwhile, individual New Yorkers, non-glamorous industries and small business owners who don't have lobbyists and who don't make big campaign contributions, continue to suffer under the heaviest tax burden in the nation.

3. Still Passing Bills In the Dead of Night: The ethics reform legislation passed in the middle of the night, without time for the public's consideration. The legislature passed more bills on a single day at the end of the legislative session than it did in the months of January and February combined. Pushing laws through at the very last minute is no way to run government. This is done to avoid public scrutiny. Every bill needs to be debated and considered carefully, with enough time allowed for public input to be considered.

Missed Opportunities

1. More Powerful Ethics Reform: There were several reforms that could have been passed to prevent the next Silver or Skelos from accumulating power and abusing their positions. These reforms include term limits for legislative offices, as well as term limits for the top leadership and committee chairmanships in the legislature. Both steps would dilute the concentration of power. The Assembly should have passed the Spirit of 76 Bill and the SOLE Act to further reduce the corrupt concentration of power. The Spirit of 76 Bill would require that any piece of legislation with 76 or more sponsors, a majority of the chamber, be automatically brought to the floor for an up or down vote. This would prevent Assembly leadership and committee chairs from thwarting the will of the majority. The SOLE Act (Sensible Opportunity for Legislative Equality) would allow each legislator to choose one bill to be sent to the floor for an up or down vote each year. Important reforms currently blocked by leadership would have a chance. We must also finally put an end to corporate welfare and pork barrel spending that often enables corruption. This was at the heart of the Silver and Skelos scandals and defines Albany's pay-to-play culture. I previously called on the Assembly to pass these reforms in the New York Post and the Poughkeepsie Journal.

2. No Meaningful Tax and Regulatory Reforms: In April, Governor Cuomo announced he was organizing a Business Regulation Commission to study regulatory reform. Unfortunately, while they had some decent reform ideas for SEQRA and workers compensation, they delivered their recomendations on June 3rd. With just two weeks left in the legislative session, that left no time for the legislature to act on the reform recommendations. There was no movement on Medicaid reform. Medicaid eats up a quarter of the budget. New York is one of the few states that gives Medicaid to non-citizens, which costs twice as much as providing Medicaid for citizens because the federal government doesn't provide a dollar-for-dollar match for non-citizens. New York's Medicaid program costs more than Florida and Texas combined.

3. Let The Punishment Fit the Crime:  This legislation would toughen sentencing for multiple homicides that are committed through a single criminal act. Currently, the law does not allow judges the discretion to deliver consecutive sentencing for multiple homicides caused by one act. The bill was passed by the Senate in 2015 and again this year, but continues to stall in the Assembly, due to the Assembly majority leadership’s erroneous claim that the bill would violate the Constitution's double jeopardy clause. However, in Missouri v. Hunter, the United State Supreme Court ruled that multiple punishments for the same criminal act do not violate the double jeopardy clause when "a legislature specifically authorizes multiple punishments." The New York State Court of Appeals cited the U.S. Supreme Court when it held in People v. Gonzalez that "[a]s long as the Legislature intended to impose cumulative punishments for a single offense, a court's task of statutory construction is at an end and no constitutional double jeopardy claim is implicated." The courts have specifically ruled that legislation like "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime" is constitutional.

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