Reforms fizzle out in Albany


This year’s legislative session started with a bang and ended with a whimper.

Days into the session in January, state legislators passed a gun control package that gained nationwide recognition as the first major changes to arms laws following the Newtown, Conn. tragedy. But legislators were not as quick to act following a series of scandals, including the arrest of two sitting legislators on corruption charges, the resignation of another on a perjury charge and a sexual abuse scandal and coverup. 

Following the arrests and resignation in April, lawmakers introduced a series of anti-corruption proposals and major reforms to the state’s campaign finance system. When legislators left Albany on Saturday, none of the legislation had made its way through both houses.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo made it a priority to pass campaign finance reform, the Public Trust Act and a 10-point package of bills to strengthen women’s rights. Nine of the women’s rights bills passed the Senate, but not one that would have brought New York state’s laws up to par with federal abortion rights. The bill would ensure that abortion would still be legal in New York if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned. 

The entire women’s agenda eventually failed. The Assembly would not break it up into separate bills, instead passing the entire package.

Two local legislators forced votes on the hot issues. 

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who represents half of Kingsbridge, added campaign finance reform legislation, including a public financing system, to a bill that will require New York City to use the old lever machines for this year’s mayoral primary and possible runoff. The amendment failed when three Democratic senators — state Sens. Ruben Diaz Sr., Malcolm Smith and Simcha Felder — joined Republicans to vote down the amendment.

State Sen. Jeff Klein, who represents Riverdale and half of Kingsbridge, added the abortion bill as an amendment to a bill pertaining to medical records. The hostile amendment was voted on and both Mr. Diaz and Mr. Felder voted with Republicans to vote it down.

Immediately following the campaign finance scrum, Senate Democrats blamed the Senate Majority Coalition — a coalition of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference — for the bill’s failure.

“Candidates are forced to raise ever-increasing sums of money just to be taken seriously in elections, which can cause the focus to shift from serving the people to serving the donors. We must reverse course, pass campaign finance reform and return government to the citizens of New York,” state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, head of the Senate Democrats, said in a statement.

IDC spokesman Eric Soufer fired back.

“...once again, Senate Democrats were either too disorganized or too fractured to unite in support of public financing legislation carried by their own leader. Make no mistake: today, Senate Democrats may have just killed the best opportunity for serious campaign finance reform in over a decade,” read the statement.

For weeks, Senate Democrats blasted Mr. Klein and the IDC because Mr. Klein said he would not bring campaign finance reform legislation to the floor for a vote because it did not have the votes to pass. Republicans said they would not vote for a system that would use taxpayer money to create a matching funds program for campaigns. Though the vote on the floor was only on whether to add Mr. Rivera’s campaign finance amendment to the other bill, it could be seen as a vote against campaign finance reform.

Mr. Rivera said he wasn’t so sure the outcome would be the same and that the bill needed to be debated on the floor of the Senate so a majority of senators could come to some compromise.

“If a bill is going to be debated on the floor of the Senate, we have an opportunity to talk about the pros and cons of a bill,” Mr. Rivera said.

Mr. Rivera blamed “the Republican-led coalition.”

“If we had a working majority, we could negotiate a version that would pass the Senate,” he said.

Mr. Klein said he would also not bring the abortion bill to the floor, even after women’s rights groups and Mr. Cuomo pressured him to do so. By adding that bill as an amendment and forcing a vote on it, he can now tell the naysayers that while the IDC is pro-choice, a majority of the Senate is not.

“Today is a sad day for the New York State Senate. New York has historically been a leader in the fight to protect a woman’s right to choose. In light of what happened on Tuesday in Washington D.C., it is clear that we can no longer take those rights for granted. No matter how others may vote, I pledge my full commitment to always help lead the fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mr. Klein said in a statement.