It’s been a trying year for many New Yorkers, who are understandably frustrated with the economy, the rise in unemployment, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the widespread state deficits that plague the country. Through it all, the Assembly was hard at work in 2009, passing legislation that makes New York a better state.
The Assembly passed laws enacting sweeping public authorities reform, saving taxpayers money through government consolidation and Tier V state pension reform, cracking down on sex offenders and passing the toughest DWI law in the country. In addition, the Assembly twice closed large budget deficits, charted a new economic and environmental path through the Green Jobs, Green New York law, and reformed the state’s outdated Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Increasing transparency and reforming the state’s public authorities
By stepping up accountability and shedding new light on the more than 700 public authorities operating with startling autonomy throughout New York, the Assembly provided much-needed reform to the quasi-governmental agencies (Ch. 506 of 2009). For years I have been acutely aware that the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Thruway Authority and others have operated largely without government oversight and with limited public scrutiny.
Because these authorities are in need of serious reform, the Assembly passed a law streamlining public authority operations and increasing oversight. Too often, public authorities have lost their focus – burning through money and straying more and more from their mission statements. The Assembly recognized this needed to be changed and spearheaded these new reforms.
Rockefeller Drug Law reform
When the Assembly helped enact the 2009-2010 state budget, it also instituted the most far-ranging reforms to the 35-year-old draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws in a generation. These reforms restored to judges their discretion to sentence many drug offenders to alternatives to incarceration, but maintained the maximum penalties for those most deserving of such sentences.
The reforms will save New York taxpayers the millions of dollars it costs to incarcerate these non-violent offenders – and make the criminal justice system more effective and fair in such cases – by:
- restoring sentencing discretion to judges by making, in many instances, probation a sentencing option and expanding other sentencing and substance abuse treatment options as alternatives to incarcerating these offenders in state prison; and
- providing a framework for the successful reentry of drug offenders into society after completing their sentences, thereby reducing recidivism and helping to eliminate the scourge of drug abuse in our communities.
Under the plan, illegal drugs will remain illegal in New York State. New crimes are also created for certain categories of drug-related offenses, including adults over the age of 21 who deal drugs to minors under the age of 17, and drug kingpins.
Over the years, the Assembly has led the fight to reform these unfairly harsh and counter-productive drug laws and, indeed, has achieved some significant successes. However, the reforms enacted this past year truly alter the landscape for addressing this problem. The Assembly also recognized that while the laws did not work and unfairly targeted minorities, they needed to be reformed carefully and prudently. Finally, this year New York State took its biggest step forward.
Closing two historic deficits
In December, the Assembly passed a measure that will shrink New York State’s budget deficit by $2.7 billion – allowing the governor to manage cash flow for the remainder of the fiscal year. Faced with the reality that the Senate and governor were far apart, the Assembly worked for weeks to bridge the gap and bring them together. It was important to make sure cuts would not affect programs that receive matching federal dollars. The deficit reduction bill successfully preserves $500 million in federal health care reimbursements state taxpayers were entitled to.
This budget deficit reduction legislation also protects state property taxpayers and our children from mid-year school aid cuts. This measure saves the state $2.7 billion and builds on the work the Assembly did in April, when a $17.8 billion budget gap was closed, the largest in the state’s history. I will continue to work to tighten our belts and bring the governor and Senate together to keep New York on sound fiscal footing.
Tier V pension reform saves taxpayers $48 billion
In order to address long-term budget shortfalls, the Assembly reformed the state pension system by passing Tier V legislation (Ch. 504 of 2009). It substantially reduces costs to state and local governments. The measure applies to both uniformed and non-uniformed public employees, and could save the state and local governments $48.5 billion over the next 30 years.
This law tackles the core problems within the pension system while providing much-needed relief to taxpayers. In September, the New York State Comptroller’s office announced that the impact of the global recession on the $126 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund will drive the average Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) and Local Police and Fire Retirement System local government contribution up to 11.9 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively, in 2011.
New York recognizes the service of its police officers, firefighters, teachers, and public servants. However, during trying economic times it’s important that the state’s costly pension system is reformed. The Tier V pension legislation is a sensible measure that will significantly reduce taxpayer costs over time.
The toughest DWI law in the country
The Assembly also passed the toughest DWI law in the country to protect our children – and every New Yorker – by cracking down on all drunk drivers. The law imposes the severest penalties on those who drive drunk with a child in the car (Ch. 496 of 2009).
Drunk driving is an incredibly reckless and dangerous crime, made all the more senseless and heinous when a child’s life is on the line. This multi-pronged measure will make drunk drivers think twice before climbing behind the wheel with a child passenger, and harshly punish those who do so.
The new law creates the first-time felony of driving while intoxicated with a child passenger. The crime punishes drunk drivers with blood-alcohol contents of 0.08 or higher who have child passengers age 15 or younger, and carries with it a possible prison sentence of up to 1 1/3 to 4 years and fines as high as $5,000. Under the law, a person charged with the new first-time felony will be very limited in their ability to plea bargain. Moreover, arresting officers who stop drivers for the new crime must contact New York State Child Protective Services, where warranted, if the offending driver is the parent, guardian, or is otherwise legally responsible for the child passenger.
The law also requires the installation of ignition interlock devices by those convicted of the new crime, any misdemeanor or felony DWI, and any DWI-related penal law felony. Ignition interlock devices – breathalyzers tied to a car’s ignition system – prevent drunk drivers from starting their vehicles. Under the law, operating a vehicle without such a device, or bypassing or tampering with it, would constitute a class A misdemeanor.
This law will go a long way toward keeping our children and our roadways safe from reckless drunk drivers.
Green Jobs, Green New York
Another new law passed by the Assembly with unanimous, bipartisan support authorizes the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to create and administer the “Green Jobs, Green New York” program (Ch. 487 of 2009). The program creates a statewide energy efficiency and workforce development program for the performance of energy audits and energy efficiency retrofits for communities, homes, small businesses and not-for-profits in order to help revitalize the economy in an energy-independent and environmentally responsible way.
This new program will simultaneously help revive New York’s struggling economy and protect our environment. This legislation tackles our economic and environmental problems head-on by investing in green energy resources, while creating the jobs to support this new industry. Clean, energy-efficient communities are the key to our future, and New York needs to take positive, proactive steps to make it happen.
Cracking down on sex offenders with “E-Alert”
The Assembly also passed a law this year allowing citizens to receive automatic e-mail notification about the presence of Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders in their community (Ch. 478 of 2009). Before this law was signed, concerned residents were forced to continually check the sex offender registry for updates, a process that was cumbersome and time-consuming.
This legislation allows any New York State resident who signs up with the Division of Criminal Justice Services to receive automatic e-mail notifications when a registered sex offender moves into his or her neighborhood. Residents will be able to request e-mail updates for up to three counties or zip codes, and the service will be free of charge. Giving families more information about sex offenders in their community will enable them to have the information they need to help keep their children safe.
In another agreement, the Assembly helped pass legislation enabling citizens and local governments to consolidate services and eliminate costly and confusing duplicative layers of government (Ch. 74 of 2009). The new law, entitled The New NY Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, will allow citizens to reorganize or dissolve outdated and inefficient local governments through a more uniform procedure.
New York State has more than 10,500 layers of government, which can result in a maze of costly, overlapping, confusing bureaucracy. Brooklyn taxpayers need relief. Through the consolidation of units of government and the services they provide, we may eliminate waste and duplication and deliver real tax savings to working families.
The Assembly also passed ethics reform legislation – yet to become law – that shines even greater light on state government. The measure – passed with bipartisan support – increases financial disclosure and creates several independent entities to oversee ethics and lobbying in New York (A.9032). The Senate, unfortunately, did not take any action on this important legislation.
This measure builds on the Assembly’s commitment to ethics reform and the 2007 law that curtailed gifts from lobbyists to legislators and created a comprehensive watchdog agency to ensure the integrity of state government (Ch. 14 of 2007).
Much was accomplished in 2009. As the year comes to a close, there are always new challenges and disagreements in government, but what’s important is meeting the needs of New York’s hardworking families. What we’ve accomplished in 2009 serves to foster economic growth, crack down on heinous crimes, shine additional light on public authorities and save taxpayers money. In these difficult economic times, the people of New York need their government to tackle the important issues. The Assembly did that in 2009.