June-July 2011 Community Report

Dear Neighbor:

The following is a summary of some of my office's activities since my last community report:

Ending the 2011 Legislative Session

June 24 marked the official end of the 2011 Legislative Session. It was one of the most historic and productive Sessions in the history of the Legislature. Against all odds, and with the tremendous leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo, Marriage Equality became a reality in New York. Significantly, New York's rent regulation laws were extended without any weakening amendments for the first time in 18 years, and we even managed to enact minor changes favoring renters. We enacted a comprehensive, long overdue Article X power plant siting legislation which will assist in producing cleaner energy and allows for strong community input to prevent geographic disparity in the placement of power plants. The Legislature passed an ethics bill to protect against corruption in the State Legislature. Families who face the burden of having a loved one with autism can rest easier knowing that insurance policies must now cover treatments and therapies for autism spectrum disorders. And for the first time in five years, the Legislature passed an on time budget – albeit one that did not place a fair share of the burden on New York's wealthiest residents.

Yet with all of our victories, we failed to act on several crucial items. The Gender Discrimination Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) – designed to prevent discrimination and violence against the transgender community – once again failed to pass in the State Senate. I vow to continue the fight for GENDA, which is one of my top priorities. We also failed to pass independent redistricting legislation that will insure fair and representative elections in our State. The Legislature also did not agree on federally mandated health insurance exchange legislation which New York needs to implement this year in order to receive crucial federal funding under the Affordable Care Act.

I noted above the extension of the rent regulation laws, which expired on June 15. I and my Senate Democratic colleagues were determined to strengthen the rent laws and, in an order to jump start serious negotiations, we voted against a two day extender on June 15. We knew that the legislation that eventually passed would have a retroactive date to cover the days during the lapse of the laws. Our strategic decision effectively forced the Senate Republican leadership to sit down and negotiate a meaningful and legitimate extension to the rent laws. While we were not successful in eliminating vacancy decontrol or reforming the major capital improvement system, among other changes I fought for, we did make some small gains. Furthermore, the landlords and their Senate Republican allies failed in their cynical attempt to undermine the New York State Court of Appeals' pro-tenant decision in Roberts v. Tishman Speyer Properties, L.P. and essentially reward owners for the improper deregulation of units. I spoke at length on the Senate floor in opposition to the Republican-sponsored bill. While the 2011 Legislative Session was not terrible for tenants, there is far more to do to insure that our essential affordable housing stock does not disappear in the years to come. I and my Senate Democratic colleagues remain committed to stopping any harmful policies designed to hurt our tenants and our neighborhoods and we will continue to fight to advance stronger tenant protections.

A number of items in this report provide more information about key issues we addressed at the end of the 2011 Session. If you have any questions or concerns related to specific legislation, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

Celebrating the Passage of Historic Marriage Equality Legislation

As I noted above, at the end of the Senate Session, with remarkable leadership from Governor Cuomo, the New York State Senate passed historic marriage equality legislation. Later that same night, the Governor signed the bill into law and it will take effect on July 24, 2011. I introduced New York's first marriage equality legislation in 2002, and I had been fighting for its passage ever since. Please see my statement on this tremendous civil rights victory here.

Passing Landmark Autism Insurance Reform

On June 17, the Senate passed landmark legislation requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for the screening, diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders, including behavioral health treatments, speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy.

I worked closely with the bill's prime sponsor Senator Charles Fuschillo (R–Merrick), Senate Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee Chair Roy McDonald (R–Saratoga), Senate Insurance Committee Ranker Neil Breslin (D, WFP–Albany) and Senate Health Chair Kemp Hannon (R, C, I–Garden City) to craft this comprehensive legislation which will provide relief to countless New York families suffering from the financial toll that comes with autism.

Under the new legislation, insurance companies would be prohibited from terminating coverage or refusing to renew, adjust, amend, issue or execute a policy solely because an individual has been diagnosed with or received treatment for autism spectrum disorders.

Last year, Governor David Paterson shamefully vetoed similar legislation during the final months of his tenure. The bill, which previously passed the State Assembly, will now be sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his approval.

Ensuring Culturally Competent Aging Services for LGBT and other Underserved New Yorkers

The passage of Marriage Equality was not the only legislative victory for LGBT New Yorkers this year. On June 14, the New York State Senate overwhelmingly passed my bill (S.1303) which requires the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) to assess the needs of traditionally underserved older adults – including veterans, immigrants, the disabled and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) seniors. This legislation will help ensure that traditionally underserved communities have access to appropriate health services. The legislation also requires NYSOFA to provide technical assistance to the organizations that serve LGBT older adults, including providing these organizations grants if available, and to report annually on the effectiveness of those services to the Governor and State Legislature.

By focusing on the needs of marginalized New Yorkers, NYSOFA can play a crucial role in reducing health disparities across the state. For the first time, New York's laws will be required to acknowledge and respond to the needs of our LGBT seniors.

Assemblymember Micah Kellner successfully sponsored the bill in the Assemby and it now awaits Governor Cuomo's signature to officially become law. I will continue to keep you updated on the bill as it winds its way through the final stages of the legislative process.

Introducing a Single Payer Health Care Plan for all New Yorkers

On June 7, New York State Assembly Health Committee Chair Dick Gottfried and I introduced a single-payer health care bill (A.7860/S.5425) that would ensure comprehensive health care coverage for all New Yorkers regardless of income. Under the plan, publicly-sponsored coverage would replace insurance company coverage, and premiums would be replaced by broad-based public financing.

I have long been a proponent of single-payer health coverage. New Yorkers need and deserve security when they are sick or injured, and should not fear for how they will pay for medical bills. Primary care and access to health care is a right. A single-payer system is not only cost-efficient, but the fair and moral choice for New York.

While the State Legislature must urgently focus on passing enabling legislation for a health insurance exchange so that New York may access millions of dollars in aid available under the federal Affordable Care Act, we should always be fighting for a single-payer system. The Affordable Care Act gives states new power to modify and improve their health care delivery systems, and New York should be on the cutting edge of providing the broadest access to quality care.

As with so many other progressive struggles, the fight for an equitable, high-quality health care system is also tied in with the need for campaign finance reform. During the public option fight in Washington, opponents of health care reform spent over $1 million per day on lobbying. Insurance industry whistleblowers such as Wendell Potter, former Vice President of Corporate Communications for CIGNA, have written extensively about the influence of money in the battle for health care reform. To achieve a single-payer system, we must also work towards meaningful lobbying reform and public financing of political campaigns.

Federal health care reform made major improvements, but it still leaves insurance companies with too much control over premiums. Premiums are unrelated to a consumer's ability to pay. Too often, patients and their doctors are left trying to figure out what is covered and then trying to get reimbursed. New York State can and must do better.

I recently spoke about single-payer and other health care topics with Susan Arbetter, host of the public radio program "The Capital Pressroom." You may listen to a podcast of that interview here beginning 23 minutes and 30 seconds into the broadcast.

Fighting the Rent Guidelines Board's Proposed Rent Increases

Please click here to see testimony I submitted on June 20 to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) opposing any rent increases for rent regulated apartments as well as for lofts, hotels, rooming houses, single room occupancy buildings and lodging houses. Given the continuing toll the recent economic recession has taken on average New Yorkers and the steady rent increases the RGB has approved in prior years, I am dismayed that the RGB approved rent increases of 3.75% for one-year and 7.25% for two-year rent stabilized leases. The approval of these increases is further evidence that the RGB system is broken and unjust. In addition to sponsoring (and advocating for) every pro-tenant bill, I am the author and prime sponsor of legislation that would reform the rent board system and level the playing field for tenants.

Urging a Ban on Hydrofracking in New York State

On July 1, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released the executive summary of its preliminary revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DSGEIS) on high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The agency plans to release in full its DSGEIS in August. Among the revisions from the first DSGEIS, which was issued in September 2009, is a prohibition on fracking in and around the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, primary aquifers, State-owned land and other water supplies around the State. Following the release of the new document, the public will have 60 days to comment and then the agency will promulgate its final regulations.

Unfortunately, given the catastrophes associated with fracking that have come to light in recent years, DEC's revisions do not go far enough. I continue to call on the agency to prohibit fracking throughout New York State until and unless the technology improves to a point which its safety can be guaranteed.

Please click here to see a letter that I and many of my Senate Democratic colleagues sent to Governor Cuomo urging a statewide ban on fracking. We must not allow our precious natural resources to be threatened by this dangerous drilling.

Opposing a Proposed Charter High School in Lower Manhattan

On June 16, I sent a letter to the New York State Education Department Office of Innovative School Models opposing the application by New York Flex Charter School to open a charter high school in one of three Lower Manhattan locations in Community School District 2. Not only do I generally believe that charter schools should not take precedence over?or resources from?our traditional public schools, but I also have specific concerns about the merits of this application and its apparent circumvention of recent amendments to New York State Education Law. Please see my letter here.

Honoring the Memory of Lower East Side Activist Rick Carman

I was honored to speak at the Sara Curry Preschool's annual award event about Lower East Side activist, longtime Manhattan Community Board 3 (CB3) member and former Board Chair Rick Carman, who passed away earlier this year. Rick was passionately devoted to his community as well as to LGBT rights, affordable housing, social and economic justice, education, and particularly to the Sara Curry Preschool, a part of Little Missionary's Day Nursery on St. Mark's Place. "Little Mish" is the oldest continuously operating non-sectarian nursery in New York City and its Sara Curry school is known for nurturing children by providing a supportive environment in which they may express their feelings freely and learn to respect the feelings of others. Like the school itself, Rick was an important part of CB3's fabric, and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to honor them both.

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