Welcome members, staff, interns and guests joining us in the Chamber today as we convene the 241st Legislative Session.
I would like to begin by offering my best wishes to you all for a safe, healthy and productive year.
To all of my Assembly colleagues, welcome back. It is certainly a pleasure to see you again.
I extend a special welcome to our newest colleagues, Assemblymembers Al Taylor and Daniel Rosenthal. As you will learn in the months ahead, through late nights and heated debates, here in the Assembly we are a family of New Yorkers. We look forward to working with you both.
When we last stood together in this room, we bade farewell to a number of our esteemed colleagues, some of whom are now beginning new chapters in public service. We wish them all the best in their new endeavors.
I also want to take a moment to remember our dear friend and colleague, Michael Simanowitz, who passed away last September.
He will be deeply missed but always remembered in our hearts. Let us observe a moment of silence in his memory.
My colleagues, we have so much to be thankful for. But as I stand here today, families in Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are still trying to piece their lives back together after last year's devastating hurricane season. We New Yorkers are always ready to lend a hand to our neighbors in need. Indeed, our state is home to more than one million citizens from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. I had the opportunity to visit Puerto Rico in November and assist in the recovery effort. A delegation will be headed to the Virgin Islands in a few weeks to help with the efforts there as well. We still do not know the full scale of human loss or economic impact and it grows with each passing day.
I want to thank all the members in this chamber who came together to help the disaster relief effort, in particular Marcos Crespo, Nick Perry and the members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus as well as the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force for their tremendous efforts. We know there is a hard road to recovery ahead for these families and we will not abandon our neighbors in need.
As we move into the new session, it is my great privilege to formally introduce to the House our new chair of the Ways and Means Committee Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein.
She is no stranger to these halls and her experience will be a guiding force for this legislative body as we continue to advance our Families First agenda. Thank you, Helene.
My colleagues, the work we do here is incredibly important. In just a few short years we achieved some truly life-changing victories for the people of New York:
It's truly gratifying to know that we are helping people in very real ways. Recently, I was at a local bakery, and a mother who works a low wage job was talking to her friend about the minimum wage increase and our new paid family leave law. It was heartening to overhear her saying that she finally felt that government was looking out for people like her. This was even more meaningful as she had no idea who I was standing behind her. This is what it sounds like when government works FOR the people whose lives are impacted by our actions.
My first initiative as Speaker was the Higher Education Road to Success in which we made increases in funding to opportunity programs to ensure that disadvantaged and non-traditional students are given an outlet to harness their ambition. Last year, we worked with our partners in government to advance the Excelsior initiative to provide free college tuition at our public colleges and universities. These investments have been transformative and must be continued. I want to thank Higher Education Chair Deborah Glick for her outstanding work and advocacy on behalf of our leaders of tomorrow.
When we talk about investing in our future, it is measures like these that translate into real-life progress and opportunity.
As you all know my affinity for Star Trek: logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.
It is unfortunate this sentiment is not shared in Washington. A year ago, we opened session unsure of what lay ahead. Today we know that we were right to be concerned. Our state is under attack like never before and the radical policies coming from Washington are threatening nearly every aspect of our lives.
We must push back wherever necessary to protect the interests of our citizens. Among other things, Congress just enacted a law to scale back the deductibility of state and local taxes-a provision of law that pre-dates the federal income tax itself. This shift will increase New Yorkers' already sizeable contributions to the federal treasury while increasing our cost of living and disrupting our housing market-all to finance huge giveaways to the rich and to large corporations.
At a time where Congress has placed its thumb on the scale for the wealthy, we must respond with the weight of the people. We will develop legislative solutions to counter this unprecedented cash grab, while maintaining and strengthening a progressive tax code that works to lift up our communities, despite Congress' effort to tear them apart.
The attacks on New York's citizens don't stop at our wallets. Reproductive rights are under severe threat by a radical administration bent on ending a woman's right to control her own healthcare decisions. The Assembly has long championed codifying Roe versus Wade to ensure this fundamental right. This must be the year that the Reproductive Health Act finally becomes law in New York.
Our agenda will also build on our successes in criminal justice reform last year which included Raise the Age, clearing of sealed records for minor offenses, and a new indigent legal services plan to ensure that everyone has access to quality representation.
Recently, some members and I visited Rikers Island to get a first-hand look at the issues we are facing in our corrections system. This experience was jarring.
With one exception, every face I saw was a face of color and it was a stark reminder of the inequities in our criminal justice system. In our state, nearly 37 percent of our residents are black or Latino. In our prison system, 72 percent of the population are black or Latino. I have always believed that the Assembly Majority's promise to fight for comprehensive criminal justice reform is the right thing to do. I feel a renewed sense of commitment. We must get it done.
In the months ahead, we will look to our public protection chairs Joe Lentol, Jeffrey Dinowitz, Crystal Peoples-Stokes and David Weprin to guide us as we take up legislation to address the outstanding issues in our criminal justice reform agenda, including:
I also want to thank the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus for their leadership on those issues including special mention of former Corrections Chair and Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Aubry.
I am heartened that the Governor has heard our call to reform these measures and will be a strong partner to make even more progress this year.
Across the country and here in New York, the Opioid epidemic is a crisis that must be confronted forcefully. We must step up our efforts to address drug addiction and overdose deaths.
The Assembly Majority has long stressed the importance of treatment and prevention and we will continue to do so. Let's address the root causes of drug use and addiction by promoting access to quality education, stable housing and good paying jobs. Mass incarceration is never the answer. We've been down this road before. Let's redouble our efforts to seriously address this scourge in 2018.
I am proud that the Assembly has taken the lead to help victims of child sexual assault get the justice they deserve. Last year we took up and passed the Child Victims Act and it will remain a priority for this House. We will take up this important piece of legislation once again and urge the Senate to join us so that this year it can finally become law.
Public education remains a top priority here in New York despite attacks from Washington.
With the efforts of our esteemed Education Chair Cathy Nolan and all of our members, we have increased support for our neediest schools.
Here in the People's House, we know of no greater cause than to promote a "sound, basic education" for each of our children. We know that this endeavor cannot occur without adequate investment in our schools, especially those that serve the neediest students. I am proud of the headway we have made on Foundation Aid over the past several years because this funding formula, although not perfect, is an equalizer for opportunity-let's build upon that success.
It is also in this house that we championed President Obama's My Brother's Keeper program, which is aimed at helping young men of color, and the community schools model. Thanks to our partners in education these programs are making a difference in so many lives.
Put simply, we will never allow our hard fought gains in education to be rolled back by a misdirected federal administration.
Children of immigrants are also under attack by Washington. Legal protections allowing them to remain in the US, learn at our schools and contribute to our economies are being held hostage in exchange for a southern border wall. For several years this house has passed the Dream Act to allow foreign-born students to complete their education and pursue meaningful careers. These are children who were brought to this country through no fault of their own and have been educated in our public schools. These are our friends and neighbors. They deserve the right to continue their education and realize their full potential and become productive members of society. We will support these New Yorkers without condition or reservation.
When it comes to keeping New Yorkers moving, we have daunting challenges ahead of us. If we want to remain competitive in an ever-changing world, we must confront our infrastructure needs and make tough decisions to strengthen transit systems throughout the state.
Subways and buses operated by the MTA are the circulatory system of the city of New York. And the city of New York, in turn, is the heart of our state's economy. Over the past several months, riders, visitors and the MTA itself have highlighted the many deficiencies of our aging infrastructure and I applaud their engagement. Let's support interim measures to shore up our transit system. That means improving reliability, timeliness and the overall customer experience because the failure to identify and address the many needs of this aging subway system will imperil our collective future.
But we must also be prepared for the long haul. Returning our subways and its infrastructure to a state of good repair, while at the same time evolving to meet ever-changing needs, will require a massive, long term public investment-with some projecting costs in excess of $100 billion. A comprehensive assessment of need must be undertaken to inform policymakers and the public alike of both the costs of action and inaction. We look forward to continuing to work with our Corporations Chair Amy Paulin.
Of course, a large scale investment in the MTA not only connects New Yorkers to their employment, but for regions beyond the city, the MTA is an important source of employment. From token booths being refurbished in Jamestown, to signaling systems in Farmingdale, to the fabrication of railcars in Plattsburgh and Yonkers, the MTA keeps all of New York working.
Over the past three years, I have had the opportunity to travel across the state of New York. From the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls to Rochester to Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain to the Hudson Valley to Binghamton and the Southern Tier to the Adirondack Mountains to historic Saratoga Springs to Long Island and its beautiful beaches to Syracuse and the New York State Fair. This state has so much to offer and tourism is critical to our economy.
Touring the state and having visited so many of our communities, I have seen firsthand how employment, income and opportunity remain unequal. We must redouble our economic development efforts in order to allow our communities to grow and thrive.
The attacks from Washington on our healthcare system are one of the most glaring examples of an out of control federal government that is not putting the interests of our citizens first.
Congress has already allowed funding for the Children's Health Program to lapse and has recklessly destabilized our healthcare system by eliminating the individual mandate which ensures people have health insurance. Though they failed in their most recent attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, our ready access to healthcare services is far from safe.
Today there are more than four million New Yorkers enrolled in healthcare programs through the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, Medicaid and the Children's Health Program provide coverage for more than 6.4 million low-income New Yorkers, including seniors, adults, children and individuals with disabilities.
In the Assembly, we are fortunate to have the expertise of our Health Committee Chair Dick Gottfried - who is in his 112th year as chair -- and Insurance Committee Chair Kevin Cahill, and we will work together to stabilize access to care for New Yorkers. The Assembly Majority conference has always fought to preserve the integrity of our healthcare systems and that will not change.
We know that access to childcare is one of the most important issues affecting New Yorkers' ability to remain in the workforce and pursue lasting careers. Yet, every working family in this state has struggled with the challenges of finding quality, affordable childcare for their children. We must make investments to bring much needed benefits for families and the businesses that employ them so that together they can grow and thrive. I want to thank the members of the Assembly Child Care Work Group:
I look forward to your continued input and guidance.
Here in New York, the effects of climate change are all too real, yet we have a President who has clearly demonstrated his profound ignorance on this subject, failing to understand the difference between climate and short-term weather patterns. We have an EPA that is openly hostile to international climate accords, and here at home, has cozied up to big polluters.
We have not seen the last of extreme weather, only the beginning. With our beautiful waterways, state parks, islands and coastal exposure, New York has too much at stake to ignore the impact we all have on our environment.
Extreme weather events disrupt and destroy infrastructure, businesses and our communities. That is why under the guidance of Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Steve Englebright we will continue our efforts to move our state into a greener, more sustainable future. We will once again take up the New York State Climate and Community Protection Act to address and mitigate the impacts of climate change here at home.
My colleagues, there is another very real threat to our safety and that of our loved ones. Orlando. Las Vegas. Aurora. San Bernadino. Newtown. Charleston. Sutherland Springs. All of these ordinary American cities and towns deserved to be known for something other than a place on the list of deadliest mass shootings. This is in addition to the rampant gun violence in our urban centers.
This is not normal and it should not be so common.
The list of tragedies and victims grows longer while Congress refuses to discuss gun control. Lax gun laws are the reason handguns, bump stocks and military-grade assault rifles are crossing state lines and finding their way into our communities. We must take action as a state to curb this deadly pipeline. We have done so much to protect New Yorkers from gun violence, yet we are once again under attack from Washington with a proposal in Congress to allow citizens from other states to carry concealed weapons on our streets. This is unacceptable and we will fight it.
In the wake of the horrible shooting in Las Vegas last year, we will take up legislation to make it a crime in New York to sell, possess, manufacture or transport devices that modify firearms in ways that effectively make them an automatic weapon. Legislation like this is a common sense step in our battle to combat this horrible problem and I hope everyone can get behind this bill and make it a law this year.
Today, women suffer 5.3 million incidents of intimate partner violence each year, in addition to their exposure to violence at the hands of strangers. The Assembly has long championed an agenda to end this cycle of abuse and we will not waver in our commitment.
Whether the victim of domestic violence or the target of workplace harassment, brave individuals who have come forward are empowering survivors to heal and reclaim their lives in the first step in righting these wrongs.
It is incumbent on all employers to maintain an environment that is free of sexual harassment. In the Assembly we have a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that is a national model and we continue to look for ways to strengthen it in order to provide a workplace that is safe for our members and staff.
At this time, I ask you to join me in extending a warm welcome to our new intern class of 2018. We have 30 colleges and universities represented in this year's class and we are so excited to have you all here with us this session - including from my own district Jamar Eccleston and Felicia Harris.
On behalf of all the members, I want to thank Assemblymember Deborah Glick, chair of the intern committee, Kathleen McCarty, our program director and all of the committee staff for their support.
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.
In closing, I know that we have many challenges ahead. The attacks from Washington are numerous. But in this chamber we have many talented and hardworking members from diverse and very different backgrounds. In the end, we are all New Yorkers. No matter what, we come together for the good of our constituents and I am proud and honored to lead the People's House of the New York State Legislature.
Thank you and God bless you all.