The Remarks of Speaker Carl E. Heastie - Opening the 240th Legislative Session

January 4, 2017 Assembly Chamber Albany

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie kicked off the 2017 Legislative Session today in the Assembly chamber where he announced several of the Assembly's many legislative priorities for the new year, including strengthening the state's schools, making college more affordable, protecting women's rights, implementing a progressive tax structure and advancing criminal justice reforms, particularly raising the age to keep youthful offenders out of adult prisons.

Good afternoon.

Welcome to everyone joining us in the Chamber today - the People's House of the New York State Legislature. It is my pleasure to begin the 2017 Legislative session by offering you my best wishes for a healthy and productive New Year.

To my Assembly Majority colleagues, in the two years since you first gave me the privilege of leading this body, we have celebrated many triumphs and it has been the honor of a lifetime.

For those who did not know me well, your support two years ago as Assembly Speaker was a leap of faith during a very turbulent time.

Today's vote is in many ways more meaningful. Unlike in so many of my own personal relationships, it's nice to know you still want me after two years.

That you have renewed your faith in me is truly humbling. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your confidence, friendship, and collegiality.

To Minority Leader Brian Kolb and members of the Minority Conference, welcome back. We may have differences when it comes to policy, but I know there is a mutual respect that we have for one another that is sometimes all too lacking in our national politics.

To our new Assembly Class of 2017, congratulations and welcome to the People's House of the New York State Legislature.

In a moment each of you will be recognized, but first I would like extend special greetings to all of the friends and loved ones who are joining us today to celebrate your achievement.

At this time, I will ask you to join me in extending a warm welcome to our intern class of 2017.

On behalf of all the members, I would like to extend our gratitude to Assemblymember Deborah Glick who chairs the intern committee, Kathleen McCarty our program director and all of the committee staff for their dedication to this distinguished program.

Welcome back to our returning faculty members, Dr. Janet Penksa leading our graduate interns, Dr. Angela Ledford, Dr. Wesley Nishiyama and Dr. Anthony Maniscalco who will lead our undergraduates.

To our new interns - welcome to Albany! We hope that the next few months here in the State Assembly will be a rewarding experience.

To all our returning and new members, once again, welcome back to Albany as we begin the New York State Assembly's 240th legislative session.

We all share a commitment to serving our constituents. We share a vision to better our communities and the entire state. There is little doubt that the change in our federal government will create serious challenges for us in New York.

Last November's election taught us many lessons. Among them, that the road to progress is never easy.

But I promise New Yorkers that the Assembly Majority will never allow this state to go backward.

We will continue to stand guard for all of the constitutionally-protected freedoms and inclusive public policies that we have always championed. In 2017, we must continue our efforts to address the vital issues facing New York, including strengthening our schools and making college more affordable and accessible.

We also have to be wholly committed to creating more good-paying jobs and increasing New Yorkers' economic security. A good education coupled with good job opportunities is the key to success for families all across this great state.

With this in mind, I want to discuss some of the issues that I believe we will take on over the course of this legislative session.

The Assembly Majority believes that there is no investment worth more than education, which is an investment in our future business leaders, healthcare professionals, educators and innovators. And by funding our schools, we are providing much needed relief to our property taxpayers.

However, the sad truth is that public education is under attack across the country like never before.

But here in New York, because of our efforts, we have secured historic funding levels for our public schools, ended the gap elimination adjustment and provided additional support for struggling schools.

This year, we will advance the goals of the campaign for fiscal equity by setting a timetable to FULLY phase in foundation aid.

We also have an achievement worth celebrating that New York became the first state to enact President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative.

This strategic plan will streamline our efforts to improve outcomes for young men of color who have every bit of promise and aptitude to succeed alongside their peers. So far we have opened up millions of dollars in grant opportunities to increase diversity among those pursuing careers in teaching and to encourage school districts to develop cradle-to-career strategies that best meet their needs.

The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have done an exemplary job implementing these programs over the last few months and I commend Chancellor Rosa and Commissioner Elia for this progress.

Now we must look for new resources to support the community schools model and wrap-around programs we advanced last year. We will continue to promote a holistic, needs-centered plan for education that helps our students meet everyday challenges while achieving academic success.

Over the last two years, we have put more students on the Road to Success by raising the ceiling on our investments in higher education.

This house has made it our mission to strengthen our commitment to opportunity programs that provide the access to affordable college education that so many of our families rely on.

This year, we will look to build upon those victories and make targeted investments in these proven strategies of academic achievement.

Our promise to support the Dreamers in our state has never meant more than it does today. We will proudly take up legislation to give these deserving young people the support they need to fulfill their American Dream. Let this be the year that we finally pass INTO LAW a Dream Act so that ALL our students have a chance to succeed.

Yesterday, Governor Cuomo announced an ambitious plan to eliminate tuition for many students at public colleges and universities.

For those of you that have been here for some time, you know that the idea of college affordability started right here in this house.

I am encouraged that the Governor is making this a priority, and we look forward to working with him and the Senate to help make this a reality.

Let us strive to make New York the gold standard for high quality, affordable public education.

This is the beginning of a new federal administration that has many citizens feeling uncertain about what the future holds.

Preserving access to affordable and quality healthcare remains among our top priorities. We were one of the first states to champion the Affordable Care Act.

Here in New York, we were well ahead of the curve.

At the beginning of last year, more than 2.8 million people, including 850,000 previously uninsured New Yorkers were enrolled in health care plans through the state's official marketplace.

Unfortunately, the new federal administration has pledged to dismantle these hard fought gains. The reality is this would destabilize health exchanges and jeopardize the coverage of more than one million New Yorkers.

Come what may, we must do what it takes to defend the stability of our healthcare system, ensure patient protections stay in place, benefits are preserved, and that our health systems remain strong.

As Speaker, I made it a priority to travel all across New York, and I learned that we have so much in common. People in Utica, the North Country, Binghamton, Buffalo, Long Island and all across the state just want the opportunity and the chance to grow and succeed.

There are also similarities in the problems our communities face. We must address the scourge of poverty and homelessness in New York.

Poverty unfortunately exists in nearly every community in our state, which is why we committed to funding anti-poverty task forces in seven regions across New York to find localized solutions.

Reliable and safe housing is a cornerstone to healthy communities.

Countless families and individuals in communities around the state rely on food pantries and charitable services to survive. A stark reality is there are more than 15,000 homeless families with 24,000 homeless children in New York City's shelter system alone.

That's why the Assembly Majority will continue to uphold our promise to put families first and do everything in our power to address the affordable housing crisis.

Last year, we joined our partners in government to pledge $2 billion to provide multi-year funding support for affordable housing construction and preservation.

And because the chronically homeless often have substance abuse and mental health issues, there is a dire need for supportive housing in our state. The funding commitment we passed will create 6,000 units of supportive housing.

While there have been initial steps taken by releasing a first round of funding, we must come to an agreement on the remaining dollars. These are critical resources that are urgently needed, and I call on the Senate and the Governor to make this a priority immediately.

As I said earlier, it has been a privilege to travel across New York during my time as Speaker. High property taxes are a plague on our communities and we must continue to address these concerns with targeted investments.

For two years, we have funded grants to alleviate the costs to communities to strengthen our aging water and sewer infrastructure and we must continue to build on these programs.

We also need a modern 21st Century transportation system for our upstate communities. Access to quality transportation options is critical to achieving our goals for upstate revitalization.

This session we will continue working to deliver adequate funding for upstate public transit including affordable transportation alternatives.

Our efforts to provide reliable public transportation options is good for families, businesses and it is an especially strong step towards greener alternatives that will help make our environment and our communities more sustainable.

Jobs and job growth will always be a priority in the state Assembly. Over the last two years, I have had the opportunity to visit Educational Opportunity Centers around the state that are training workers for expanding and emerging job opportunities.

We must build on that by developing partnerships with our local community colleges and educational institutions with a goal of training our workforce so that employers will have access to a rich and diverse talent pool in all regions of the state.

Income inequality remains the biggest challenge affecting our country.

New Yorkers are working more jobs and longer hours than ever before just to get by. While raising the minimum wage is a great first step, we must tackle the root of income inequality by pursuing policies that allow working families to keep more of their income and to afford the rising costs of housing, child care, healthcare and education.

In 2011, we implemented tax reforms that some believed would drive high earning New Yorkers out of the state. History has shown this is simply not the case. In fact, one out of five of New York's tax paying millionaires live out of state.

The state has more millionaires today than ever before, and we are renewing our call for a progressive tax structure that supports funding for initiatives that are critical to our families.

Last year, we advanced a plan that would require wealthy New Yorkers to pay their fair share. Our plan would create new income tax rates for those earning over $1 million a year. It also would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit to give low-income families a helping hand. Our plan would:

  • Shore up our revenue base to support our schools;
  • Provide for continued and seamless delivery of health care;
  • Help us meet our vast infrastructure needs; and
  • Offset revenue losses resulting from the middle class tax cut we enacted last year.

It is simply unfair and unsustainable for the heaviest tax burden to rest on those who are least able to bear it. We must not abandon the working poor - those workers stuck at the lowest rungs of the economy who provide critical services to our healthcare system, public agencies and to not-for-profits that do meaningful and challenging work in our communities.

At the same time, the majority of New York's workforce comes from small businesses. That is why we need to restore and support incentives in our tax code to help small businesses grow and succeed.

For several years, we have watched as extreme weather events left their costly and devastating mark on our state.

From Long Island's beaches through the high peaks of the Adirondacks, there is no question that all of New York is vulnerable to the realities of climate change.

Today, billions of dollars later, we are still recovering and shoring up our preparations for the next extreme weather episode.

This conference convened a climate change work group that charged ahead to rally stakeholders into action.

Now, as denial of global warming prepares to shape the national agenda, the Assembly Majority will continue our momentum on this issue and push New York into a greener, more sustainable direction.

It is incumbent upon us to all work together. Time is of the essence.

Future generations will look back and take some comfort in knowing that New York's leaders believed our environment was worth fighting for.

For years, the Assembly Majority has championed reproductive freedoms. New York was the first state to safeguard women's reproductive health. And it is our job to preserve and protect it.

The stakes have never been higher. The president-elect has said that he would appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Early in this session, we will take up legislation to codify Roe v. Wade into New York law and provide clarity in the public health law so that this fundamental right can never be eroded in our state.

Through the years, we have been met with resistance in the Senate. We were repeatedly told that reproductive rights were not threatened in New York. If the November elections taught us anything, it is that many of the freedoms we hold so dear face renewed and vocal opposition. We must meet that opposition with an equivalent level of passion and support.

Across the country, we have seen state governments put in place draconian laws that make it next to impossible for women to get the healthcare they need.

Not in New York. And not on our watch here in the Assembly.

Just as education is a key to helping people climb the ladder of economic opportunity, we must do everything we can to reform the criminal justice system.

This year, we will take the necessary steps to bring our criminal justice laws into the 21st Century.

It is unforgivable that the poor and underprivileged bear the brunt of a criminal justice system that does more to break them down than it does to make our communities safer.

This is a priority for me personally as Speaker and I feel my speakership would be in vain if we didn't fight with all we have to make the system better.

Our system is failing.

It failed Kalief Browder who was wrongfully accused of stealing a backpack at just 16 years old. When his family was unable to raise $10,000 for bail, he was detained at Rikers Island for three years awaiting a trial that never came.

When his case was finally dismissed, he had endured three years in jail, 400 days of solitary confinement and abuses he couldn't overcome. He took his own life at just 22.

The Assembly Majority has championed the issue to Raise the Age for many years. It is a cornerstone of our Families First agenda. Today 16 and 17 year olds are still being sentenced to adult correctional facilities where we know they do not belong.

It is time that our partners in government join us in passing and enacting a measure to move these cases to Family Court where they belong. Let us give these young people the intervention and guidance they need so they can be productive members of society.

The Assembly Majority, including Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Aubry, Chair of Codes Joe Lentol, Chair of Correction Danny O'Donnell, Chair of Judiciary Helene Weinstein and the Assembly's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus have all been outspoken advocates for top down criminal justice reform, including:

  • Grand jury reform;
  • Wrongful conviction reforms;
  • Eliminating barriers to employment including banning the box and sealing certain records;
  • The basic right to a speedy trial;
  • Independent oversight of inmate complaints; and
  • Prison system reforms including reduced use of solitary confinement.

We have passed measures that would prohibit racial profiling by law enforcement. We have also backed efforts to ensure accountability in the investigation of fatal encounters between civilians and law enforcement.

We will renew our push for bail reforms that will not unfairly punish those from low-income families.

We must continue to invest in alternative to incarceration programs and support a robust re-entry initiative that will reduce recidivism.

By eliminating barriers to housing, higher education and employment we can improve the prospects of past offenders so they are not set up for failure upon release.

We must do more to make sure poor and indigent defendants have access to legal counsel. We fund every aspect of our judicial system, and it is a bedrock value of our society that all defendants have a right to competent legal counsel.

Last year, we passed a bill championed by Assembly member Pat Fahy with broad bi-partisan support to have the state mitigate the high costs of indigent legal services while improving the quality of representation.

The costs for these vital services have been an enormous burden on local governments which in turn drives up property taxes.

But this is a problem that will not go away. We will continue our efforts to find a solution. We must get it done this year.

These are just a few of the issues we will take up in the coming months. As always, we will take on the hard work that needs to get done in order to keep our state moving forward.

The State of New York has a legacy for defending all people regardless of race, creed, gender or economics.

This is who we are and who we should strive to always be.

The work we do here is vitally important. Unfortunately, some seek to diminish this body because of the actions of a few who have abused the public trust.

One of the casualties of poor ethical behavior of a few is that it often overshadows the great work that so many of us do here in Albany and in our districts. My one ask of you is this: don't let anyone tell you that the work you do here is insignificant. Argue for your constituents. Debate the issues. Persuade your colleagues. Work with one another to craft legislation to help people.

Don't let cynicism and a defeatist attitude rule the day.

Let 2017 be a year that we can take pride in all our accomplishments and engage in the great pursuit of democracy for all the great State of New York.

Finally, it gives me great pleasure as my first official act as Speaker to announce the re-appointment of my good friend and partner Joe Morelle as Majority Leader of the New York State Assembly.

On a personal note, Joe has been a great friend to me and to all our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and I extremely proud that he will once again partner with me to lead our Majority Conference.

With that, I will now turn to our Majority Leader Morelle who will take us on our way.

Thank you and God bless you all.

Mr. Morelle …