Legislation Wrap Up 2002 (Or It's Déjà Vu All Over Again)
Many believed that the political planets were aligned for the 2002 Albany legislative session and this year was going to be different. The session started four months after one of the worst days in American history with our state bearing the brunt of both the heartache and financial loss of the September 11th tragedy. In his State of the State Address, Governor Pataki cautioned us of the bleak economy and difficult fiscal cutbacks ahead. Yet, there were also new promises and confidence that in these troubled times statesmanship would prevail and our leaders would put political partisanship aside.
And then on May 17th our expectations were raised even further when an $89.6 billion election year budget was passed. Although again past the mandated deadline, it was far earlier than most of the late budgets of the last 17 years. While the budget scaled back non-profit funding, we were grateful and encouraged that for once, time remained in the session to discuss issues other than the budget.
Heeding the call of community activists and recognizing the cost savings of treatment over incarceration, Albany leaders focused on reforming the nation’s harshest drug laws. They remarkably seemed to agree that New York would benefit from choosing treatment over incarceration for many of the non-violent drug offenders who currently languish in prison with little chance of rehabilitation. Court restructuring, a high priority of the Association for decades, saw a renewed energy with the help of domestic violence advocates, who complained that victims of family violence should not be forced to go simultaneously to Family, Supreme and Criminal Court to find relief from abuse. And despite the economic downturn, we were promised that an assigned counsel raise could occur this session.
But true to form, business as usual has again prevailed in Albany. Less than two months after passing the budget, the two houses went home without an increase in the assigned counsel rate. And while Rockefeller reform seemed within reach, Albany leaders could not bridge the last narrow gaps that separated them. Court restructuring became mired yet again in politics over judicial selection. Another of our high priorities, a gay and lesbian anti-discrimination bill, stalled in the Senate, where it has languished since it was first introduced in 1971. Agreement also could not be reached on legislation regarding campaign finance reform, auto insurance rates, the legal blood alcohol level, a minimum wage raise and even whether clergy should be required to report sexual abuse against children.
There were a few legislative achievements. This Association supported Mayor Bloomberg in his successful quest to obtain legislative approval for more control over the New York City school system. Legislation requiring employers to cover women’s health needs such as contraceptives and mammograms was finally enacted. And original legislation drafted by the Association, which will ease congestion in real estate tax review proceedings, was signed into law.
But also unfortunately enacted this session was legislation which raises and then diverts certain court fees in order to fund the New York State Institute of Cultural Education. As we have been continuously told that a lack of a solid revenue source was the only obstacle to an assigned counsel rate increase, diverting $20 million from court fees to a non-legal institution was incomprehensible. We expressed our outrage in a letter to Albany leaders. But many legislators responded that if they had known about this fee diversion provision buried in an over 200-page budget bill, which they were given little time to read, they would have certainly voted against it. This only highlights the dysfunctional process in Albany.
As this newsletter goes to press, we still have hope for reform this year. The Rockefeller drug laws and assigned counsel funding are still being negotiated. There may be a special session before the end of the year. But it may be overly optimistic to hope that politicians will be motivated to earnestly debate and compromise for reform in a post-election special session. In the meantime as each day passes many lives are wasted when there should be hope for rehabilitation, access to justice is denied for lack of funding for a minimal fee increase for assigned counsel, and the judiciary struggles to respond to family crises with courts which have built in barriers to speedy access and justice. We can only hope that in these historic times statesmanship, leadership and the spirit of good will shall prevail in Albany.