As 2008 draws to a close, we reflect on a busy and somewhat tumultuous legislative year in Albany. As your representative I fought hard for progressive legislation in many areas that are of concern here in our community, including housing, political and governmental reform, the environment, and many other issues. We were not successful in all of these areas; the lack of agreement on strong legislation protecting tenants was particularly disappointing. However, we enacted a substantial number of important new laws that will solve problems and make New York a better place in ways large and small. I am particularly proud to report that eighteen of the bills I introduced this year passed the Assembly, with nine of these also passing the Senate, and seven signed into law by Governor David Paterson.
In this edition of my community newsletter you will find highlights of the legislative and budgetary issues we worked on this year. Another “year in review” edition that you should receive separately reviews the work we did here in our community.
As always, if you have any questions or comments about these issues or any others, or if we can assist you in any way, please contact us at 212-979-9696 or email@example.com.
As a member of the Assembly Housing Committee, I fought for legislation to strengthen protections for tenants in rent-stabilized apartments. My Assembly colleagues and I passed numerous bills that would accomplish this goal. These included bills that would:
Repeal “vacancy decontrol” provisions that allow landlords to take vacant units out of the rent-regulated system (A7416A);
Increase the thresholds above which landlords can take apartments out of the system under “high-income decontrol,” raising the household income threshold from $175,000 to $240,000 and the monthly rent threshold from $2,000 to $2,700 (A10647);
Limit the length of time over which landlords may charge tenants for major capital improvement (MCI) expenses, requiring that rent surcharges for MCIs cease when the cost of the improvement has been recovered (A6510);
Limit a landlord’s ability to evict tenants to accommodate the landlord’s personal use of the apartment (A799);
Ensure that tenants in housing subsidized by a federal Section 8 project-based assistance contract receive the benefits of rent stabilization when the federal subsidy runs out (A5677); and
Give New York City and other municipalities the power to provide tenant protections greater than those offered by State law, by repealing the “Urstadt law.”
Unfortunately the Senate did not take up any of these measures this year. However, I am optimistic that a change in Senate leadership in the New Year will enable us to make progress on many of these bills.
Tenant harassment continues to be a significant problem in our community and in many other parts of New York as well. While my office attempts to help individuals currently experiencing harassment, I am working in Albany to create laws to protect tenants’ rights. This year the Assembly passed two bills that would address different forms of tenant harassment. The first (A10823) would increase the civil penalties the State housing agency could impose on landlords who harass tenants or who violate orders related to rent-regulated housing. A second bill (A10158), which I introduced, would protect tenants from landlords who use frivolous lawsuits to try and force tenants from their apartments. The latter bill would allow tenants to recover attorneys’ fees and damages in cases where landlords act in bad faith to bring eviction proceedings against tenants on the basis of non-primary residence. Unfortunately, once again, the current leadership in the Senate failed to act on these bills. Recently, I joined State Senator Tom Duane in introducing a more expansive version of this kind of legislation, addressing false and frivolous claims made by landlords against tenants not only in the context of non-primary residence challenges, but in many other circumstances where a landlord uses legal processes to harass tenants by making false claims. Again, Senator Duane and I are optimistic that we can pass this kind of legislation with new leadership in the Senate.
Another bill I authored that we passed in the Assembly this year, and hope to pass in both houses next year, is A8308, which would prohibit landlords from employing key-card systems that track personal information without tenants’ consent, including photographs, names, addresses, and the dates and times tenants or their guests enter and exit their apartments.
Along with Senator Liz Krueger, I introduced legislation to address the environmental hazards posed by polystyrene, often called “styrofoam.” The bills (A9420 and A11466A) would prohibit the use of styrofoam in the food service industry and would require the State and its contractors use biodegradable or recyclable food-service ware, respectively. This legislation would serve as a significant step toward cleaning up New York’s waste stream, reducing litter—especially in waterways—and making New York a more environmentally sustainable place. The latter bill passed the Assembly but not the Senate.
Every year an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide. Billions end up as litter or take up valuable space in landfills. Plastic bags do not biodegrade but instead break down into smaller toxic bits, contaminating soil and waterways and suffocating marine life. In addition, manufacturing plastic bags uses over 12 million barrels of oil each year. A bill I supported (A11725), the “Plastic Bag Reuse and Recycling Act,” would require stores to make reusable bags available and accept plastic bags for recycling. It would apply to stores with over 10,000 square feet, or stores with five or more locations over 5,000 square feet. This legislation passed both houses and was signed into law by Governor Paterson.
In an effort to make state government more efficient and environmentally responsible, I worked on two pieces of legislation. The E-Pay-Stub Bill (A11555), which was signed into law by Governor Paterson, requires the State Comptroller to study the feasibility of offering electronic pay stubs to State employees and release a report of findings this coming February. By giving employees the option of receiving pay stubs electronically, the State could dramatically reduce payroll administration costs and paper use. A second bill (A10153B) deals with reports issued by State agencies. Currently, when State agencies produce certain reports, they must send a copy to every member of the legislature. My legislation would enable agencies to satisfy this publication requirement by posting copies of their reports online and sending notification that the reports are available. The bill passed the Assembly, but not the Senate.
State laws governing the pollution of natural aquifers that supply drinking water had become severely outdated, with penalty levels set over a century ago. To address this, I introduced legislation to update these penalty levels, hold egregious polluters criminally liable, and require them to pay the cost of cleaning up the environmental damage they cause. The bill was signed into law by Governor Paterson in September.
In an effort to address traffic congestion in our community, I introduced a bill (A10071), which was signed into law, to create a more effective mechanism for preventing vehicles from blocking intersections in New York City. A prime cause of gridlock, “blocking the box” significantly contributes to pollution. Before enactment of the new law, blocking the box could only be ticketed as a moving violation and only NYPD officers and a small number of Traffic Enforcement Agents (TEAs) could issue the violations. This meant more time reviewing identification and less opportunity for officers to enforce the law. Now, blocking the box can result in a non-moving violation with a fine of $115, and all 2,800 of the City’s TEAs can issue fines with handheld devices that scan a vehicle’s information from the registration sticker and print tickets. During the first month the law was in effect the number of summonses given for blocking the box increased from 1,717 in 2007 to 11,479 during the same period in 2008.
The New York League of Conservation Voters named Assemblymember Kavanagh an “Eco-Star” Legislator of 2008—one of only 5 Assemblymembers to be recognized. Marcia Bystryn, president of the organization, said: “Assemblymember Kavanagh is fast becoming one of the leading environmentalists at the Capitol.”
I was a prime sponsor of several other bills the Assembly passed but the Senate declined to take up, including:
The “Bigger Better Bottle Bill” (A8044), which would add non-carbonated drinks like bottled water, sports drinks, juices, and iced tea to the beverage container five-cent deposit and recycling program.
An “e-waste” bill (A8444) that would establish an electronic equipment recycling and reuse program to allow consumers to return unwanted electronic devices to manufacturers for reuse or recycling, preventing chemical components like mercury, lead, and cadmium from ending up in landfills.
A bill I introduced (A7630) to prohibit the mass release of helium balloons into the atmosphere.
As a member of the Assembly Elections Committee, I worked hard to push for new campaign finance legislation that would offer substantial public funding for candidates who agree to spending caps. This year, the Assembly passed the 2010 Campaign Finance Reform Act, a measure that would provide for optional public financing of statewide and legislative elections. The legislation is aimed at restraining the influence of large donors and special interests in New York’s elections system and making elections more competitive. Unfortunately, the Senate failed to act on this bill.
I introduced legislation (A10439) allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to be full members of community boards. This legislation is supported by Borough President Scott Stringer, Future Voters of America, Councilmember Gale Brewer, who has backed a city council resolution in support of the bill, and numerous community boards, including our local Community Boards 3 and 6 (although Community Board 5 voted down a resolution in support of the bill). The bill has also been featured in the New York Times and the New York Daily News.
We enacted a bill I introduced (A11227A) that will allow certain foreign medical specialists to continue to practice in New York. The new law, which was supported by the Medical Society of New York, increases the time foreign doctors holding specialized guest worker visas can practice medicine here. Prior to the new law these specialized doctors could only practice for nine years—often not enough time for them to become permanent residents or citizens—meaning many were forced to return to their home countries.
The League of Humane Voters of NYC gave me a perfect score on their “Humane Scorecard” and featured three of my bills among those they used to rate all legislators. Governor Paterson signed two of these bills into law:
One bill (A10343) prohibits people from leaving pets trapped in a vehicle for long periods without proper ventilation on extremely hot or cold days, and authorizes police officers to take action to remove an animal from such dangerous situations. The ASPCA, which supported the bill, has already incorporated the new law into its training of law enforcement.
Another bill (A10092) facilitates enforcement of laws against cockfights, dog fights, and other animal fighting events staged for spectators. Previously, to prosecute spectators, authorities had to prove that they paid admission or placed a wager, which was often difficult when law enforcement raided these events. Absent such proof, spectators were not subject to any penalty.
In August, the Governor and the legislature agreed to cut a total of $1 billion, including $400 million in the remainder of Fiscal 2008-2009, which runs through March 2009, and $600 million in Fiscal 2009-2010. The cuts included about $200 million in reductions to hospital reimbursements, $50 million in funds for projects in individual legislators’ districts, and belt-tightening savings across dozens of agencies.
Notwithstanding these steps, the State’s fiscal health has continued to deteriorate, with combined budget deficits for the remainder of this year and next now projected to be about $15 billion. On December 16th, the legislature returned to Albany to receive the Governor’s Fiscal 2009-2010 budget, which the Governor submitted more than a month before required, in hopes of stimulating budget negotiations.
While it seems likely that we will have to make some very difficult budget cuts, I believe that our approach to balancing the budget and protecting core services in these difficult times must include reform of the property and income tax systems, to achieve greater fairness and a net increase in revenue from those most able to pay. The Assembly passed a bill (A11838) in the August session that would represent a significant step in this direction, proposing to cap property taxes for people with incomes of less than $250,000 and to provide comparable relief to renters. The relief would have totaled $1.7 billion statewide, and the bill would have raised $1 billion in additional revenues to address the looming deficits. All this would have been accomplished by increasing the tax rate on the wealthiest one percent of wage earners in the State—those making $1 million or more each year—from 6.85 percent to 7.85 percent, and increasing the rate on those earning more than $5 million a year to 8.60 percent. Unfortunately, the Senate did not take up the Assembly’s proposal, but instead simply chose to slow the rate of property tax growth, with no provision for funding any resulting revenue shortfall.
The current budget process promises to present difficult choices, but it also presents opportunities to make government more efficient. Here’s one example that illustrates the point. In the past ten years the State’s overall prison population has fallen by 13 percent from a high of about 71,500 in 1999 to about 62,000 today. Moreover, the number of inmates in minimum security prisons has fallen nearly 50 percent. As a result, last year the proposed executive budget included the closure of four correctional facilities, which would have provided $30 million in annual savings to taxpayers. Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected in the final budget largely, it seems, because of the jobs that prisons provide in upstate communities. While I am committed to promoting good jobs in every part of the state, I believe that the taxpayers should not be paying for half-empty correctional facilities—and I voted against the portion of the budget that included this wasteful expenditure.
In a time when wages are stagnant and people are losing their jobs, it is vital that we protect and expand access to affordable housing. Unfortunately, for years the State has been neglecting its responsibility to one of New York’s largest providers of affordable housing—the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).
From 1958 through 1974, the State constructed 12,500 public housing units in 15 developments operated by NYCHA in New York City. Unfortunately, in 1998 and in each budget thereafter, the State failed to include operating expenses desperately needed to maintain this vital and aging housing stock. Largely as a result of these cuts, NYCHA has been forced to make difficult choices to close a growing budget gap, such as raising rents and fees, reducing maintenance and services, and in some cases selling off properties.
NYCHA estimates that it costs over $60 million per year to operate the State developments within its portfolio. Each year, NYCHA is forced to divert federal funds meant for other developments to offset the State’s neglect. Since taking office in 2007, I have made it a priority to fight for the State to pay its share of the cost of our public housing. I will continue this fight in the current budget negotiations.
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