Albany's unfinished business, Part II


Last week we highlighted some of the work we think the New York Senate and Assembly have left incomplete as they head toward the end of this legislative session on June 19.

We said that legislative action on corruption in state government and campaign financing hasn’t gone far enough. We urged stronger, broader reforms.

As critical to public confidence in good, clean government as these issues are, they aren’t the only matters left unfinished by the Senate and Assembly.

Women’s equality

On the Women’s Equality Act, there is agreement between the Democratically controlled Assembly and the GOP-Democrat jointly led Senate on nine sections of a 10-part package of laws designed to end gender-based inequities in pay, sexual harassment, orders of protection and human trafficking.

The single provision holding up passage is on reproductive health. Rather than dropping it and getting all else passed, pro-choice advocates demand a no-compromise, all-or-nothing passage of the package. That isn’t going to happen. Pro-life advocates who oppose that part say federal law already provides for what it would cover, and they would never support what they see as an expansion of abortion services. A refusal to drop that highly controversial section — at least for now — so the rest can become law seems like a sacrifice of the good by a demand for what only some believe is the perfect, and many believe is anathema.

We urge progress on women’s equality by passing what can be passed and revisiting the most controversial part separately.

School mandate relief

For years, school district officials have clamored for relief from unfunded mandates, and for good reason. Mandates hamper districts in the era of the tax cap and take money away from educational programs. There are steps that the Legislature could take to provide relief to school districts. For one, it could amend the Wicks Law to allow districts to hire one contractor for construction projects instead of separate ones for general construction, electrical, HVAC and plumbing. Assemblyman Brian Curran (R-Lynbrook) and others support rewriting the Wicks Law, and so do we.

Curran also thinks there should be a moratorium on state mandates that exceed a certain amount, and we think that’s a serious idea worth discussing and acting on. Future mandates, at least ones that demand some significant percentage of a district’s budget, should be funded by the state. For example, districts received only a fraction of the money necessary to implement the new teacher and principal evaluation systems and other Race to the Top initiatives. 

While the executive and legislative branches are looking at education, they should decide on the effectiveness of the whole Regents system, the method for funding the schools and the quality of public education in the state. Of course, none of this will be addressed by June 19. But we think a blue ribbon panel should be appointed by the governor or the Legislature to examine everything from student success, teacher performance and evaluation, to Common Core, state testing, curriculum, college preparedness, de facto racial segregation, school taxes and employee compensation.

The panel should comprise national and state experts in educational management to look at our system with 21st century eyes to see whether we could do better. Our own Long Island school districts have many enlightened, dedicated, experienced and informed educational administrators, who, with other non-academic professionals from many parts of the community and parents, may be able to forge a new, more effective paradigm to fulfill the state’s educational mission.

Combating the heroin crisis

A legislative task force, chaired by Sen. Phil Boyle (R-East Islip), held a series of hearings on the alarming rise in heroin abuse across the state, which has reached epidemic proportions and killed 110 people across Long Island last year, up from 96 in 2011. The Senate’s co-leader, Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), and many other legislators, agree with the task force’s recommendations. The Legislature has every reason to move swiftly on these proposals. Heroin cannot be debated away. Action is needed –– now.

Other unfinished business items include the immigration-related Dream Act; decriminalizing or legalizing the use of medically prescribed marijuana; and legislation, advocated by Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), that would provide for more compassionate long-term care for seniors (in their homes or in the best comparable settings).

The Legislature has done good and productive work in recent years. There used to be the old saw about three men in a room — the governor, the Senate leader and the Assembly speaker— making all the decisions. That’s changed: it’s four men now that the Senate has joint leadership. But budgets are getting passed on time, aid to education has increased, state taxes have not been raised, and there’s generally a stronger belief that action is being taken on important matters.

Now that Albany no longer appears to be dysfunctional, as it once was, it should be ready to attack corruption, campaign finance reform, women’s equality, education and other issues important to the people of the state.