The Assembly and Senate leadership scandals have obviously rocked Albany by producing high drama and changes in who holds the reins of power in both houses. However, this legislative session may go down in history as a time that ushers in even greater long term reform. That is still unclear and we are in the midst of a decisive moment about which way our state and system of government goes. In the halls of the Capitol the talk is about whether there are more shoes to drop from Preet Bharrara.
For far too long, the political system in Albany has made a mockery of representative democracy. As the scandals uncovered by the Moreland Commission and the media have shown, wealthy interests have set out to influence and control the outcomes of elections and legislation and the leaders have put a “for sale” sign on the Capitol and allowed it to happen. Senior citizens and nonprofit organizations don’t have political action committees to try to influence elections. What we are seeing in terms of spending though is well beyond the normal political action committee. Investigations have shown a large number of secret committees set up through loopholes that funnel cash to support their interests whether they be real estate or the privatization of education.
If the end result of the current scandals is to begin to produce changes that close these loopholes and make donors have to identify themselves rather than hide behind a smokescreen web of shell organizations, then change may finally come to Albany. What these scandals have also done is unmask the rigged money game that has contributed to the increasing economic inequality in New York and in other states. The investigations and prosecutions are continuing at the same time as those on the low end of the economic ladder are demanding greater equity and fairness. The push to raise the minimum wage has gained traction as not just a matter of fairness, but also an effort by government leaders to end the subsidies public programs must provide to large corporations which underpay their workers.
These reforms may be the real history of our time. However, powerful interests will always exist and fight back. Why though is it strange and unusual that the public should demand that every legislator represent the people they serve first not their donors and that every piece of legislation should be based on the legislator’s view of its merits for their constituents and the state itself, not by the amount of campaign cash their vote might produce? Why is that form of democracy not followed?
History has clearly shown that democracy only works when the people work at it and there are times when we have to fight harder for the representative democracy that was intended when this country was founded. It is time for New York and America to “live out the true meaning of its creed,” as Dr. Martin Luther King said.
One of the most dramatic legislative sessions in recent times is coming to a close in Albany today as legislators pass bills to enact an agreement on several major issues negotiated by Governor Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. Those two leaders assumed power in the middle of the session after Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos were indicted and stepped down from their posts though they remain sitting as members. (I will be posting a commentary on the corruption in Albany later today).
It is true that many times we are able to organize and push for bills and budget increases that legislators recognize as important but senior issues have not been a priority for many years in the Legislature. Of course it is always about power and that is why it is so important to organize and build power.
It was important this year for seniors to add their voices in support of paid family leave and help build the powerful coalition that will make legislators take notice. While the Assembly passed paid family leave legislation, the Senate did not and that sets up a major campaign for the bill in next year’s session. The political environment will be much more favorable next year with national and state elections taking place.
The paid leave issue picked up tremendous momentum during the year but the Senate once again heeded business concerns and did not move the bill. However, there is support from key senators and it is expected that Republican Senator Jack Martins, the chair of the Labor committee will introduce his own bill. He held hearings this year and has said he would like to hold more hearings. There was some comment that with the Governor’s push for the Labor Department’s wage board to increase wages for fast food workers that Senators were reluctant to enact another employee benefit that effects business this year.
Legislation to enact safe staffing that was pushed by a coalition of senior advocates and labor unions also did not pass this year. The safe staffing issue has become a hot button as nurses are threatening to strike at a number of hospitals because of what they view as overwork that causes dangerous situations for patients. Hospitals are resisting having any mandatory staffing ratios. This issue will continue to be in the forefront as major changes are sweeping through the health care and hospital sector.
One bill that did pass as we noted before is the CARE ACT which will be sent for the Governor’s signature. It requires hospitals to allow patients to designate a caregiver and provide training for caregivers who would be expected to provide post hospital care at home. AARP is pushing this bill in states across the country.
A bill (A4036 Quart/S2809 Lanza) that would allow prescriptions to be “synchronized” by scheduling refills the same time of the month passed the Assembly on June 15 and is on the Senate calendar so it could pass today. Supporters believe synchronization will not only save time for patients and caregivers going to the pharmacy but will lead to refills being done in a timely manner so that there are no interruptions in drug therapy. This bill had the support of health advocates, pharmacists and drug companies.