Days before Governor Cuomo’s “State of the State Address” marks commencement of the 2013 legislative cycle, Assemblyman Karim Camara led a group of African-American and Hispanic legislators, labor leaders and advocates to press a progressive agenda. “The Caucus intends to take the guesswork caused by the Senate leadership uncertainty of whether critical issues facing our communities will be resolved by holding Albany’s feet to the fire on issues such as gun violence, minimum wage, education, stop-and-frisk, the Dream Act, marijuana drug laws and health care,‘’ said Camara, Chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus. “And we will fight to restore millions of dollars that went to vital community initiatives in legislative member items under a new and more transparent ‘New York Neighborhood Initiatives’ program. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been cut from these initiatives for four consecutive years resulting in crippling effects to neighborhoods throughout New York.”
For the first time in New York’s history, the Caucus announced its session priorities in advance of the session and the State of the State, signaling the intention of the Caucus to push a Progressive Agenda Day One. “The Caucus believes that the issues outlined today in our People’s Budget and Priorities must be a part of the Albany discussion at the outset, and releasing these priorities today gives everyone a sense of how they comport with the priorities of others. As a result, New Yorkers will know where there is common ground in Albany and where work needs to be done to establish consensus,” said Camara.
The Caucus added the following new ideas and initiatives to the Progressive Agenda: leading a nationwide state legislative effort on affecting gun control and reducing gun violence; the first-ever Gun Violence Awareness Month in New York; the expansion of Community Schools to New York’s most troubled schools; and the New York Neighborhood Initiatives program. These new ideas and programs will augment the existing agenda that includes the minimum wage, the Dream Act, marijuana drug laws, stop-and-frisk, health care, affordable housing and criminal justice. Camara said that the Caucus will focus on ensuring a progressive New York agenda in four ways: legislative process; substance, educating the public and through budget discussions.
Despite upstate New York being home to several gun manufacturers and the reluctance of the New York Senate GOP, New York is poised to become among the first states to pass new gun control measures in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre. Governor Cuomo has outlined a gun control agenda that would require regular renewal of gun licenses, broaden the banned category of weapons characterized as assault weapons, limit the size of gun magazines and potentially strengthen mental health record screenings.
“I feel it is most important for the public to be informed [about] what we are proposing to do. All of the issues that have been highlighted here speak to the issues of ‘quality of life’ that our people are experiencing in the communities,” said Assemblywoman Annette Robinson. “We’re talking about increasing the minimum wage, about health care, education, stop-and-frisk, marijuana arrests, a whole plethora of issues that affect the quality of life of our constituents. They need to know that we are online for them to make a difference.”
“We are going into session and we are going to be discussing these issues with the governor. Many of them he has indicated – gun violence, a minimum wage increase and marijuana,” said Robinson. “Hopefully, in the State of the State Address that will take place on Wednesday, they will be included in his State of the State address along with certain other issues that we need to put forward.”
Robinson noted that many of the issues have already been supported on the Assembly side. “The issue is when it goes to the Senate side for it to be supported and passed. Then we can take care of business for the people, and then, of course, it goes to the governor’s office. When it goes to the Senate side it is a different issue. That is what the difference is,” said Robinson. “We are hitting the ground early on these issues so that we can begin the greater discussions as to what needs to take place.”
Robinson stated “New York State voters need “call the governor’s office. They need to call the Senate leader Dean Skelos and let him know ‘We support these initiatives.’ The issues we’re talking about need to be supported on the other side of the aisle. When the leadership speaks to that, it makes a difference.”
“I think it’s important that we talk about the approach, setting the tone for this upcoming legislative session. Some of this legislation is being recycled. Sometimes it is the approach as legislators, advocates and labor leaders that will bring about different results,” said Assemblyman Walter Mosley. “I think that Chairman Camara has taken the initiative to be a lot more proactive. We’re in this together. Ultimately, we want to pass legislation that’s going to benefit the people of our great state. We’ve seen so many times people falling to gun violence, people not being able to make a decent living wage, people not having opportunities for employment or after-school programs. These are all issues within this package of legislation that we are looking forward to not only presenting to the governor and our respective houses, but passing this legislative cycle. It’s time.”
“We felt it was very significant going into 2013 — with perilous economic times we are in and the uncertainty of Senate leadership — that it was very important that we come together as members to assert our agenda,” said Camara.
“We are here to tell the Senate, ‘You cannot wait till March 30 or March 31 to debate these issues. We need to talk about them now.’ We need to pass them now because they have a real impact on New Yorkers.” Camara added, “We can’t wait until midnight negotiations and have these issues held up as carrots or sticks for transactional politics. These issues impact our communities on a daily basis. We have to insist that the bi-partisan coalition follow a progressive agenda. That is what the voters said. Not only did they vote for a president, but they voted for issues that impact our daily existence.”
Camara recommends voters throughout New York State to call the Senate leadership, call the members of the Senate bipartisan coalition “and tell them that you need them to address the issues that Americans and that New Yorkers think are dear to them. New Yorkers made a decision. New Yorkers decided the leadership that they wanted. They decided the issues and now as elected officials we have to follow their wishes in terms of the issues.”
“I think it is valuable for us (as elected officials) to communicate with our constituencies about the things that we stand for. Whether it’s the news or on our websites, they can educate themselves about the things we are going to be pushing for, and then hold us accountable, whether it’s the governor, whether it’s the Senate, the Assembly, the City Council,” said Senator Gustavo Rivera. “They need to be in communication with our offices and with us. Call our offices. Visit our offices [in our districts or] in Albany.”
Rivera added, “It is up to us to make sure we can push forward an agenda, but we need to do it with the support of our constituencies.”
On Monday, Senator Rivera referred to the leadership plan under Republican Conference Leader Dean Skelos and Independent Democrats Conference (IDC) Leader Jeff Klein as a “coalition government” that is “an unworkable arrangement.” Rivera said the scheduled first session was to take place on Tuesday, and then got pushed back to Wednesday.
At the beginning of the week, Rivera said, “We have not even a draft of what this agreement the ‘coalition government’ is going to look like, which I think speaks for itself.” Rivera recalled that “a few weeks ago Skelos said, ‘Our agenda hasn’t changed.’ That should tell you everything you need to know right now. If the Republican agenda hasn’t changed, then they are not going to be pushing for the progressive agenda New Yorkers voted for.”
The Senate GOP/IDC leadership agreement was released close to midnight on Tuesday. The agreement established three separate conferences with the GOP/IDC forming a “majority coalition.” The GOP and IDC would have equal authority to bring legislation to the floor for a vote. The Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee will be the conference leader with the most members, which between the GOP and the IDC is Dean Skelos. Both state Senators Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein have signs posted outside their office that state: “Temporary President of the Senate.”
According to the agreement, the Majority Coalition would receive 71% of member-item allocations, leaving 29% available for the Democratic Conference.
Regarding the unusual rules change, Senate Democratic Spokesman Mike Murphy said, “The rules were made available close to midnight before the vote and we still don’t have all the answers to how this unprecedented and unusual control agreement will work. The people of New York deserve clear answers and deserve to know they will get the progressive government they demanded and the Senate Democrats will work to ensure that happens.”
Senator Bill Perkins held out hope on Monday. “Marriage Equality was not on the agenda of the Republican Senate until the governor decided. So that gives me great faith in the kind of leadership we have in the governor that this agenda can be fulfilled. I am looking forward to working with the governor to make sure that the people of this state get the benefits of this legislation that has been proposed.” Perkins added, “It is very important that the public understand where we are trying to go on behalf of our constituencies around the state. We are very sensitive to how our constituents understand what we are doing.”