June was a great month for New York. Legislators in both houses from both parties followed their moral compasses to extend this fundamental human right - marriage - to same sex couples.
Governor Andrew Cuomo's activism for same-sex marriage was critical to the bill's success. He recognizes that discrimination against same-sex families is profoundly wrong.
For years, I have said that same-sex couples should have the same right as others to the legal and social protections, responsibilities, and benefits of civil marriage. Stable families help build a stronger society. For the welfare of the community and fairness to all New Yorkers, the new law says that the love, commitment, and families of same-sex couples are entitled to the same recognition the law gives to any couple.
I introduced the first marriage bill in the Assembly in 2003, with Tom Duane in the State Senate. When Governor Eliot Spitzer submitted it as a Governor's program bill in 2007, Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell, one of the Assembly's openly gay members, became the lead sponsor.
To see my speech in the Assembly in support of the marriage bill, go to: http://www.assem-bly.state.ny.us/Gottfried.
Rent Laws Renewed and Strengthened
In June, the State Legislature approved a renewal of the Rent Stabilization Law, which strengthened tenant protections for the first time since 1993. The legislation raises the vacancy deregulation threshold from $2,000 to $2,500, and increase the income threshold for "high income" deregulation from $175,000 to $200,000. This change will preserve more of the city's affordable housing stock by making it more difficult to deregulate units.
In parts of the city where stabilized rents are approaching or surpassing $2,000, such as our community, long-time residents will be protected from deep rent increases, but not for long. While it's good that the thresholds were raised, this only gives temporary security to many tenants. Vacancy deregulation and upper income deregulation should be repealed.
The new law also reduces the rent increase allowed for Major Capital Improvements in buildings with more than 35 units from 1/40 to 1/60 of the rent.
In previous years, when Rent Stabilization was up for renewal, the anti-tenant position of the State Senate always meant that renewal of the law was combined with changes that weakened the law. This year, the Assembly's strong support of the law was backed up by Governor Cuomo, and the result was some improvements and no "give-backs."
Natural gas drilling companies are eager to begin horizontal hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") operations in many upstate New York areas, including areas that provide the drinking water for New York City. Fracking injects huge amounts of water laced with toxic chemicals, under high pressure, underground to break up the rock and release natural gas. There is danger that the toxic fluids may migrate for miles underground and pollute the environment, especially our water supply. There have been numerous cases around the country of water supplies being contaminated by fracking.
In May, the Assembly Committee on Health, which I chair, co-sponsored a hearing with the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation to study the effects of fracking on public health. I believe the scientific testimony we received makes a compelling case against allowing fracking - especially horizontal fracking - in our State. After the hearing, Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee chair Robert Sweeney and I wrote to Governor Cuomo, urging that the State Dept. of Health have a more prominent role in the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on fracking.
On June 6, the Assembly passed a bill that I co-sponsored, A. 7400 (Sweeney), which would extend the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in New York State until June 1, 2012. Unfortunately, the State Senate did not take it up.
At the end of June, Gov. Cuomo partially lifted the moratorium. Fracking would still be prohibited in areas near the New York City and Syracuse watersheds. However, other parts of the state will no longer be protected. Extending the moratorium would have given the Legislature and the State Dept. of Environmental Conservation time to examine the risks and benefits associated with fracking and take further action. The bill had strong support from a broad range of environmental groups. I believe that if this type of drilling cannot be conducted safely, it should not be done at all. If the state is now going to consider permit applications, they should be rejected.
I have also signed on to a letter by spearheaded by the Environmental Working Group, calling on the Federal Department of Energy to appoint environmental advocates to the its advisory board on natural gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing. The board is currently comprised entirely of people who are affiliated with the energy industry.
Protection of Transgender Rights: "GENDA" Passes Assembly
My bill to protect transgender people under the State Human Rights Law was approved by the Assembly in June by a vote of 89-55, with bi-partisan support. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA, A. 5039/S. 2873), sponsored in the State Senate by Senator Duane, is still in committee in the State Senate.
Transgender people - whose gender identity, appearance, behavior or expression differs from their genetic sex at birth - face discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations and other areas of life, and they are particularly vulnerable to hate crimes. They are not protected under current state law.
The experience and discrimination of transgender individuals, is unique, and should be specifically recognized. The discrimination should be unambiguously rejected in our State's civil rights laws, just like discrimination based on age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, race, disability, or ethnicity.
The bill has broad and bi-partisan support. Thirteen states and 92 cities and counties in the U.S have passed transgender-inclusive civil rights legislation. It is time for the state of New York to embrace our diversity and protect those who are most vulnerable to discrimination.
Another Bad Rent Guidelines Board Decision
The Rent Guidelines Board voted in June to allow rents to be raised for one-year leases up to 3.75% and up to 7.25% for two-year leases for Rent Stabilized apartments, for leases being renewed on or after October 1, 2011. The Board again responded to landlord claims about rising operations and maintenance costs, and largely ignored tenant concerns. I believe there should have been a rent freeze.
The RGB has given landlords rent increases in years when there were no cost increases. So current rents are already above landlord costs. If costs are rising, they are only now catching up to those unwarranted increases. New Yorkers, even in Rent Stabilized apartments, pay an excessive and growing percentage of their income for rent, much more than in the rest of the country. It hurts tenants and the city.
If you have questions about the increases, please call Eliyanna Kaiser in my office at 212-807-7900.
Affordable Health Benefit Exchange
The Federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires each state to establish a state health benefit exchange, through which individuals and small groups will be able to purchase health insurance that meets federal and state standards. It will also be the central point for signing up for Medicaid, Child Health Plus and Family Health Plus, with simplified processes including online enrolling. If the state does not set up its own exchange, the federal government will do it. The ACA provides grants to pay for the state to create the exchange.
In June, the Assembly passed a bill (A. 8514), submitted by Governor Cuomo to create the "New York Health Benefit Exchange." The bill was a three-way agreement among the Governor, the Senate, and the Assembly. As Assembly Health Committee chair, I was a key part of the negotiations. Unfortunately, the State Senate did not act on the bill. If the Senate does not pass the bill by the end of the year, New York's residents will likely be required to participate in a federal Health Benefit Exchange.
Youth Voter Registration
The motor vehicle departments are required to have voter registration materials at their offices.
Assembly bill A. 7440 (Kavanagh), would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they apply for learners permits and drivers licenses at the DMV. When they turn 18, the voter registration would take effect. The bill would also allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, if they will turn 18 before the general election. Eighteen other states allow this and I believe New York should as well.
Medicaid Investigation Bill Approved by Legislature
To crack down on Medicaid fraud, I helped write the law that set up the Office of the Medicaid Inspector General (OMIG). That office is catching a lot of bad guys and recovering hundreds of millions.
But it's also grabbing many innocent health care providers and accusing them of wrongdoing for simple clerical errors or legitimate disagreements about medical necessity.
In June, the State Legislature approved a bill that I wrote (A.5686-A/S.3184-A), which would set standards for the OMIG audit process to protect honest providers and the patients they serve. It is now awaiting Governor Cuomo's signature.
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