Remarks by Speaker Sheldon Silver
The Center for New York Law Breakfast Series
New York Law School, 47 Worth St. (between Church St. & W. Broadway), Manhattan
Thank you, Ross [Professor Sandler] for that kind and generous introduction.
Good morning, and thank you ladies and gentlemen for that warm reception.
It is an honor to be here at the prestigious New York Law School, one of Lower Manhattan's treasured and history-making institutions, and one of its more valued assets.
As an attorney, I have an affinity for those places where the study of law and the pursuit of a truer, more visionary justice transcends scholarship and rises to the level of passion.
There is nothing I enjoy more than a vigorous debate about the issues, particularly, the issues that so deeply impact our families, our homes and our communities, such as education, health care, jobs, criminal justice, and the civil liberties that are the foundation of our democratic society.
I have long admired New York Law School's involvement in those debates, especially your commitment to innovation and integrity.
I am grateful that there is a non-partisan entity in this city - right here in my hometown of Lower Manhattan - that is dedicated to making government more efficient, more productive and certainly more easily understood.
It is a privilege to have my name added to the honor roll of noteworthy leaders whose words still echo through the hallowed halls of this great school.
Let me add that this institution is fortunate to count among its faculty Professor Ross Sandler, someone whose leadership and commitment to excellence in public service have engendered the respect of this city's leaders and all those who strive to maintain New York's status as the greatest metropolis in the world.
The topic assigned to me - because I would love to be talking about other things - is “Issues in the Upcoming Legislative Session.”
Rather than read to you from a long list of prominent issues, let me begin - in the spirit of debate - by asking you a few questions.
What is our nation's, our state's and our city's obligation to Lower Manhattan post-September 11, 2001?
Is anyone inspired by the progress of the rebuilding and revitalization effort thus far?
I tell you this bluntly and without apology, my hometown - the battlefield that absorbed the brunt of Bin Laden's "war on America" - is not recovering as it should, as it must, as true American honor would dictate.
More than four years have passed - closer to four-and-a-half - and the Downtown economy continues to stagnate.
Last year, when I addressed the city's business leaders on this issue, I told them point blank that we lacked and desperately needed a comprehensive plan for rebuilding and revitalizing Lower Manhattan.
I reminded them that prior to the attacks, Downtown was the third largest business district in the country.
Now we're number four and threatening to slip further behind.
And remember, Lower Manhattan is still short 67,000 jobs.
That's 67,000 diners who aren't dining in our restaurants.
That's 67,000 shoppers who aren't shopping in our shops.
That's 67,000 customers who aren't banking in the banks.
In an attempt to jumpstart the planning effort, I offered the city's business leaders a "Marshall Plan" of my own; a plan composed of incentives and building projects intended to renew Lower Manhattan's legendary business prowess.
I said that we must convince more mega-corporations, mid-sized firms, small firms and financial houses to relocate here in Downtown.
I said that we must erect more commercial space and retail stores, more research facilities, more schools, libraries, and community centers.
This a historic community and it should be a 24-hour-a-day community.
The fact is that in my district, over one-third of the people walk to work!
To that end, I have worked behind the scenes to convince Goldman Sachs and Verizon to move and consolidate their operations into Lower Manhattan.
I proposed that the Port Authority build a new headquarters on the World Trade Center site.
I even offered to move my office to Ground Zero and challenged the Governor and other elected officials to move to a new building there as well.
None of that can happen until the Port Authority repairs the foundation.
Additionally, I joined the Mayor in announcing the creation of a new elementary school not far from here on the site of the Downtown Hospital parking lot.
I proposed the construction of the Church Street Corridor, and the Mayor is now on board with that.
Yet, there is still delay after delay, and with each one, Lower Manhattan continues to lose ground.
Understand this, Lower Manhattan is my hometown. Its future is more than just a governmental issue. It is personal to me and I will not abide any effort to make Lower Manhattan anything less than the financial and business capital of the world, as it always has been.
Lower Manhattan needs our federal, our state and city governments to recognize that our recovery is priority one for this city and state.
We need effective and consistent leadership.
We can no longer endure "starts" and "stops" that we have been enduring.
We must get the ball rolling and keep it rolling.
Five generations of Silvers - from my grandparents to my grandchildren - have lived in Lower Manhattan and called it home.
If it's not too much to ask, I'd like to think that fifty years from now there will be Silvers still calling Lower Manhattan home because together, we did the hard work and we built a better Lower Manhattan than any previous generation has ever known.
Next year, 2006, will be George Pataki's last year as governor.
We will be working with him and with our colleagues in the Senate on the rebuilding and revitalization of our Lower Manhattan community.
And we will also work hard to pass a second, consecutive, on-time budget and to address the state's needs.
We will also be setting the agenda for the next governor whom I hope and expect will be our current attorney general, Eliot Spitzer.
We will be preparing for a future where the school funding issue is settled once and for all.
We will be preparing for a future where New York's economic development and job creation effort begins in the classroom, extends into every kind of high-tech research and development, and takes into account each community's competitive advantages and assets.
We will be preparing for a future that abhors the "culture of corruption" and demands transparency, integrity and accountability at every level of government.
We will be preparing for a future where the health, education and welfare of the people are considered the moral obligation of government and not merely the fodder for speeches.
When it comes to jobs, the Assembly Majority, that I am proud to lead, will continue investing in regionalized economic development.
We will continue to employ our outstanding state and city universities, our colleges and community colleges as hubs for high-tech research and development, for business incubation, for workforce training, and for modernizing our manufacturing sector.
We will continue to recommend limited targeted tax cuts and to take action to help small businesses to survive and flourish in the State of New York.
We will continue to advocate for low-cost energy for business growth as well as relief from home heating costs.
The Assembly Majority approaches the next legislative session as the undisputed leaders of education reform.
Our leadership has brought about higher standards, greater accountability from our local schools to our Board of Regents, improved school governance here in the city, and so much more.
Without question, this state must - once and for all - address and resolve the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision with a solution that will not take resources away from any school district.
It is probably the most important issue we can take up.
Sadly, the current governor has never truly addressed the school funding issue, and will more than likely push it off onto the next governor without addressing it next year.
He should be embarrassed by the number of student that have been shortchanged; denied the resources they needed to fulfill their dreams and to compete in the global marketplace.
We must not shortchange another generation of students. Ten years of appeals is long enough.
As pleased as we all are that the City has resolved its long-running contract dispute with our teachers, the truth is that there is a tremendous disparity in compensation between urban, suburban and rural teachers. We should address that disparity.
Consider this: the high-school class of 2018 is sitting in our kindergartens right now.
They don't realize it, but they are already competing with their counterparts from Asia, the European Commonwealth, India, and with five-year-olds from every city, town and village in North America.
I believe that we have a moral obligation to provide all of our children with a sound, basic education at the very least!
With this as our standard, you can be sure that the we will continue our fight in 2006:
Students should not be doomed to learning math by counting the rain drops leaking through the roofs of their schools or the paint chips falling from the walls of their classrooms.
Let me add that we will support continuing professional development for our teachers as well as those ever-vital after-school programs.
I am confident that our next governor will recognize something that our current governor could not: that our human capital is our greatest advantage.
Therefore, we must prepare our future by strengthening our higher education system. That is paramount.
It's time to say:
Moving on to other issues, it is estimated that more than 2.8 million New Yorkers - or roughly 15-percent of our population - is without health insurance.
In an effort to provide coverage to more working families and children, the Assembly Majority created Family Health Plus, and we expanded coverage under the Child Health Plus program.
Let me remind you that Family Health Plus is the program that the Governor continues to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting while at the same time he is cutting its funding in the state budget.
We believe that health care - like education - is a moral obligation of this state.
So, we will continue our efforts to provide coverage to as many uninsured New Yorkers as is possible.
Guaranteeing that affordable, accessible, quality health care is available to all New Yorkers demands that we address the fiscal crisis facing so many of our hospitals while ensuring safe staffing ratios in all of our health-care facilities.
The Healthcare Association of New York State is reporting that New York hospitals lost $127 million in 2004 - the seventh consecutive year they have operated in the red.
The Legislature and the Governor have established the 18-member “Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century” to remedy this perennial problem and to assist us in "right-sizing" New York's vast health-care system.
With respect to Medicaid, let me reiterate that Medicaid cuts do not constitute Medicaid reform.
Because the program exists to provide care to vulnerable communities, our Assembly Majority is intent on ensuring that Medicaid dollars are being administered carefully and expended wisely.
In fact, we have been hosting public hearings across the state to examine how this State can more successfully combat Medicaid fraud.
Fraud, however, is only part of the problem facing this State.
Understand that a small percentage of the population accounts for the bulk of Medicaid expenditures.
The aged, the blind, and the physically challenged account for approximately 72 percent of Medicaid expenditures yet they comprise less than one-third of all Medicaid recipients.
This small group of New Yorkers are the primary users of costly long-term care services.
Going back to 1994, the Assembly has advanced measures intended to lift the high cost of Medicaid from taxpayers without compromising the quality of health-care services.
If the Governor had followed our lead, localities would have saved hundreds of millions of dollars to date.
Along with fraud and expense, keep in mind that this State still is not receiving its fair share from Washington when it comes to Medicaid dollars.
For some states, the federal government reimburses as much as 75-percent of their Medicaid costs.
New York receives 50-percent. Some might think that is because we are one of the richest industrial states. Let me tell you, Pennsylvania gets fifty-three percent. Michigan gets nearly fifty-seven percent. Ohio gets fifty-nine percent.
And surprisingly, Texas - with all of its oil wealth - gets sixty percent.
If the governor could pick up the phone and have his friend in the white house provide us with just five percent more - just five - New York State would gain nearly $3 billion in additional federal Medicaid reimbursement.
Imagine what $3 billion could do for New York's health-care system. It would go a long way in this State.
Another critical issue facing the Legislature in 2006, is criminal justice.
From my first day in public office and throughout my tenure as speaker of the New York State Assembly, I have advocated for this state to be as tough as constitutionally permissible on crime.
Since I have been Speaker, the Assembly Majority has passed - and the Governor has signed - more than one hundred new, "tough-on-crime" laws.
The Governor has acknowledged as much and now he is saying that as a result of those acts, New York is the safest "big state" in the nation.
These days, much is being written and reported about sexual predators and the issue of "civil confinement." Let me be clear.
As a father, a grandfather, and a law-abiding citizen, Ii despise all who prey upon women and children, the aged and the physically challenged, the mentally ill and the poor.
There is nothing Ii want more than to keep our children safe and to keep dangerous sexual predators out of every city, town, village and neighborhood in this State.
As a student of the law and a practicing attorney, I also know the boundaries of our legal system, and I know that you can't strengthen those boundaries with knee-jerk reactions and political game-playing.
The New York Court of Appeals' declaration that the Governor's death-penalty law was unconstitutional proves the point.
A recent decision by a trial court finding that the administration had failed to follow a number of simple legal requirements in seeking to confine twelve sexual predators, also proves the point.
The appearance of toughness may work in the wild, but it is not enough to shield our loved ones and our communities from violent crime.
While I recognize that the personal attacks being directed at me are the last gasps of a political party and political leaders that are wrestling with failure and irrelevance here in New York, the spewing of such venom and the subsequent frightening and riling of our citizens will not protect vulnerable New Yorkers from the predators in our midst.
I ask you, what good are tough laws if district attorneys will agree to plea bargains that set two or three year sentences for those very same sexual predators?
When the punishment no longer fits the crime, we must work together to strengthen penalties.
I will recommend to my Assembly colleagues that we act early in the next session on legislation to crack down even harder on sexual offenders with increased penalties and regulatory requirements.
As a part of that effort, I will be discussing with our members whether a new law providing for the civil commitment of sex offenders should be enacted.
When we act, we will act on legislation which will be the product of careful deliberation and thought - not political grandstanding.
Let's spend a little less time scoring political points and a lot more time working cooperatively for the benefit of the people of our State.
No discussion of next year would be complete without mentioning "reform."
Last year, the Assembly Majority drove the effort to reform government.
Working with the Assembly Minority, we initiated - with bipartisan cooperation - the most dramatic rule changes the body had witnessed in a generation, changes that improved the operations of the People's House of the State Legislature; changes that made our proceedings more open and more accountable.
For example, we ended the practice of empty-seat voting.
We established a vital subcommittee structure to provide members a greater role in researching, analyzing and debating legislative issues.
We instituted Tuesday sessions for the first time in order to add fifty percent more time for greater review and debate of legislation.
Next year, among the internal reforms we will advance, we will provide full, 24-hour-a-day, statewide coverage of Assembly and Senate sessions, as well as joint legislative proceedings.
Last year, we followed our internal reforms by advancing a comprehensive legislative agenda intended to reform the budget process, public authorities, lobbying and procurement lobbying, campaign finance and voting, judicial selection in the State of New York, empire zones, and the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
By April 1st of this year, we went on to pass the first on-time state budget in 20 years.
Let me assure you, I am committed and the Assembly Majority is committed to working with the Governor and with the Senate to pass a second on-time budget for the State of New York this year.
I can't speak to the Governor's intentions nor can I speak for the Senate, but I can tell you this: it is indicative of the health of a democracy when a state constitution provides for a "balance-of-power" between the executive and legislative branches in the budget-making process.
It is indicative of the health of a democracy when a disagreement as to the interpretation of such constitutional provisions is thoughtfully and carefully resolved by the processes of a state's judicial system.
The Court of Appeals' decision in Pataki v the Assembly and Senate was a very "unhealthy" development in the constitutional history of this state.
No other top court in the nation, including our own, has ever come close to giving a chief executive - not even the president - the kind of powers that this decision gave the governor of New York.
Never before has a judicial decision empowered any chief executive in this country to "hold laws hostage" in the budget negotiation process.
Pataki v. the Assembly and Senate expressly affords a governor the authority to wrap a request for authority to spend money around a circumvention or a temporary repeal of existing state law.
This decision obviously didn't preordain an untimely state budget, but that does not make a completely "incorrect" decision any "more correct".
Does that mean we're finished with reform? No, absolutely not!
We will re-assess our budget reform legislation and move forward with it where we can.
These are some of the key issues facing the legislature in 2006.
There are others, of course, including eminent domain, casino gambling, and transportation.
Many of these issues are complex, but none are impossible to resolve so long as we possess the will and the imagination; so long as we recognize that certain issues such as education, health care and public safety are more than priorities. They are obligations of the government.
Hopefully, the era of mistrust and resentment between branches of our state government is coming to an end and a new era of collegiality will bring us to conclusions in these areas.
I know that you would like to ask some questions, so right now I will stop and say, "thank you."
Now, I will take your questions.
New York State Assembly
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