Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Huntington, said he was pleased by the number of bills that were passed during his first session as a state senator. The Herald Gazette visited him in his new office in Syosset last Friday to discuss the legislation that he sponsored or cosponsored, focusing on the bills that passed but also considering those that didn’t, which Gaughran said remain a source of disappointment.
Eighteen bills that passed the Senate and Assembly are awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature, but 38 more passed only the Senate — the result of a backlog, Gaughran said, of important legislation. After the Democrats took control of the Senate in January — for the first time in a decade — bills that had languished for years were brought to the floor, he explained. The number that passed was remarkable, Gaughran said, adding that he thought he knew why.
“I attribute this to having so many new senators,” he said. “This is unprecedented, for a freshman Senate to be able to pass so many bills.”
There are 39 Democratic senators, 15 of whom are new. Gaughran said another reason why so many bills passed was because freshmen senators are chairing significant committees, which is also unusual. “So we’ve had the ability to do something that under normal circumstances a brand-new senator wouldn’t be able to do,” he said. He chairs the Local Government Committee.
One of the challenges for Gaughran was the budget process, because, he said, everything happens in the final hours before the old budget expires. “There has to be a better system where everything isn’t so rushed at the end,” he said, shaking his head. “Part of the problem is the dynamics of the Senate, Assembly and governor, which are similar, but in some cases include a difference of priorities.”
Policy changes and laws are often inserted into the budget, which lawmakers have to support if they want to pass the budget, even if they don’t approve of the additions. “In my case, the permanent property tax cap, which I sponsored, was inserted into the budget, and record increases in public school aid, which was all positive,” Gaughran said. “My focus next year will be to increase the trend for more aid for Long Island school districts, particularly the ones I represent.”
Gaughran, who represents the 5th District, won’t be a freshman when the new session begins in January, which will also be advantageous. He has time over the next six months to develop legislation, taking into consideration what his constituents and other elected leaders in his district need and want.
Gaughran said he planned to hold formal hearings, to invite people to testify about specific issues and to live-stream the proceedings for those who can’t be there. The underlying goal of the hearings, he said, would be to find ways to provide tax relief, particularly property tax relief for those in his district.
Below are some of the bills Gaughran sponsored or cosponsored. Those that passed are awaiting Cuomo’s signature.
Retirement benefits for Sept. 11
civilian agency responders
The bill, which passed the Senate and Assembly unanimously on June 20, would benefit roughly 610 civilians who belong to the State and Local Employees’ Retirement System and who are ill as a result of taking part in the post-9/11 recovery and cleanup at the World Trade Center, which they were required to do by the agencies they work for. To qualify for benefits, they would have to prove that they have a significant medical issue that arose from that work.
They would be able to retire with annual benefits of three-quarters of the average salary of their three highest-paid years, regardless of their age or how long they worked for the agency. The measure would cost the pension system about $320,000 per member. The recipients would also receive any money they had already contributed to the pension program.
Gaughran co-sponsored a series of bills to modernize New York state’s voting system. The key bill, he said, would allow voting as early as nine days before Election Day, including weekends.
“Most larger states have this already,” he said. “We have one of the lowest voting participation rates in any state in America. I think that’s because in other states, people had more than one day to vote.”
Create a public water entity
Gaughran envisions that his work is just beginning on legislation to create a public water entity to protect ratepayers in the Sea Cliff district of New York American Water, a private water utility. He submitted his bill near the end of the session.
“I waited until I felt there was a consensus among the citizen activists that a bill should be introduced for discussion,” he said. “I plan to reintroduce the bill in January.”
Limousine driver safety
Responding to limousine accidents last year, the Senate held hearings to explore laws that would penalize reckless drivers. The most powerful testimony, Gaughran said, came from family members whose children died or were seriously injured in accidents caused by careless limo drivers.
Nine bills were passed in the Senate, and he was the prime sponsor of two, which would make the penalties higher for limo drivers who make illegal U-turns, speed excessively or run red lights than for other motorists. The bills passed the Senate, but Assembly members wanted to write legislation of their own, saying that Gaughran’s bills were too extreme. The Assembly only addressed illegal U-turns.
“I called one of the mothers of one of the teenagers who died in a limo accident, and asked if she wanted us to agree to pass the lesser version, or stand firm and try again in January,” Gaughran said. “She and others said they want me to pass the strictest bill. There were a lot of tears involved during the hearings.”
He said he would reintroduce his bills in January.
Gaughran sponsored a bill that would require the installation of a commercial GPS in all commercial vehicles, which would provide drivers with more detailed information, like warnings of low bridges. He said he believed it was important, in order to avoid potentially serious accidents.
Tax breaks for firefighters
Fire departments are seeing a drop in recruits. Gaughran sponsored a bill that would allow departments to offer tax breaks to volunteers, if approved by the municipality, regardless of whether they live in the community. The tax breaks, he said, should encourage millennials, who are more flexible about where they live and move more often, to serve as firefighters.
“We need volunteer firefighters,” Gaughran said. “If we had to convert to a paid fire department, there would be an astronomical increase in our property taxes.”