The Democratically controlled state Senate achieved much during its first year in power, local residents were told during an open house on Oct. 16 at the Slater Center in White Plains.
The “2019 Legislative Session Wrap-Up” was conducted by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and state Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers), whose districts include White Plains.
“We had a historic session this year,” Stewart-Cousins said, adding later she is the first woman to lead the state Senate.
Stewart-Cousins said the Democrats have one of the largest majorities they have ever had in the state Senate. There are currently 40 Democrats in the 63-member state Senate.
Stewart-Cousins said she and Mayer have been conducting town halls in the local area. “The idea is to make sure our communities know some of the things we were able to accomplish and hopefully understand that we are very, very committed to access, to hearing, to listening, to being available.”
“For us in the Senate, we have really taken on some big issues,” Stewart-Cousins said. One of the keys to the success has been setting up work groups “to get to the answer” on issues, Stewart-Cousins said.
The first action taken by the Senate was to reform the election process. One part of that reform is early voting, which will begin on Oct. 26, Stewart-Cousins said. Another reform is combining Congressional and state primary dates at the end of June. However, there is no fixed date for the presidential primaries.
The Legislature passed gun safety laws, Stewart-Cousins said. One of the new laws is the expansion of background check days for gun purchases. Under the new law the background check time has been expanded from a maximum of 10 days to 30 days. Ninety percent of the persons who seek to purchase a gun are able do so within minutes following a check, however, the other 10 percent of gun seekers may have “red flags” come up during their background check and it takes longer to determine if those persons should be allowed to buy a firearm. Federal agencies, including the FBI, have indicated that it takes at least 30 days to do a thorough background check for some gun purchasers, Stewart-Cousins said.
Another piece of gun safety legislation approved earlier this year is a gun buyback program.
The state also approved the Child Victims Act, allowing people who were abused as children to now have legal recourse against those who abused them, Stewart-Cousins said, adding the legislation was passed unanimously.
The Legislature also approved legislation preserving abortion rights. Federal law had abortion rights protections that New York State did not have, Stewart-Cousins said.
New state environmental laws “have been hailed as being the most progressive laws with real serious target dates” to reduce greenhouse gases and the state’s carbon footprint, Stewart-Cousins said.
Mayer, chair of the Senate Education Committee, touted what she felt were achievements in education made during the previous legislative session.
Stewart-Cousins said the Legislature added $1 billion in education aid to districts.
Mayer said education aid is the largest portion of the state budget and New York City gets, by far, the most school aid. Mayer praised Stewart-Cousins for creating a sub-committee on New York City schools “so that we are not fighting among ourselves.”
“Every one of our districts deserves to have its kids have the best public education they can have. And that is a commitment from everyone in our conference. This is the number one issue,” Mayer said.
The Legislature this year applied the Human Rights Law to public schools, protecting job seekers and employees from discrimination; previously, it only applied to private schools in the state, Mayer said.
The Legislature approved Erin’s Law. Erin Merryn was sexually abused as a youth. “She really did not know how to deal with it at the time because no one gave her the language and the information about how to talk about it,” Mayer said. “Erin’s Law will improve curriculum on the subject in the early grades.”
Mayer said the state needs full-day pre-kindergarten in every district that wants it and the programs must be funded by the state. This is particularly important with two parents working “We have a big agenda on education,” she said.
Libraries are part of education and the Legislature approved additional library funding, Mayer said. “I get more e-mails about libraries than about anything else,” she said. “The libraries have become the civic centers of communities.”
Stewart-Cousins and Mayer responded to residents’ questions during the town hall.
Bronxville High School sophomore Bethany Lee, an unpaid intern working in Stewart-Cousin’s office, asked what the Legislature would do about the “health care epidemic” of vaping injuries, particularly among youths. She also asked for the senators’ thoughts on legalization of the recreational use of marijuana.
Mayer said she has “very serious concerns” about vaping. School superintendents, guidance counselors and parents have expressed concerns about vaping, she said. The recent serious heath damage among some who vape “causes us grave concern,” she said. Three Senate committees are planning to hold a hearing on vaping, including her own committee, in Manhattan on Nov. 4, Mayer noted.
The legalization of recreational marijuana use was not approved during the session, Mayer said. “Many of us have grave concerns.”
However, the Legislature decriminalized the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use. Past convictions for marijuana possession are being expunged from criminal records without the hiring of an attorney to make a motion to do so, she noted.
Stewart-Cousins said that Gov. Cuomo recently enacted executive orders on vaping devices and certain vaping flavors that would be permitted. The Legislature could codify the executive orders into law during the next session, she said, adding that Senate Democrats are concerned about vaping.
Stewart-Cousins said there will be legalization of recreational marijuana use sometime in the future. There have been people harmed by the “War on Drugs,” including personal marijuana use, she said.
Another resident asked the senators’ opinions of allowing young women to take an HPV (human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted virus) vaccination without parental consent. Mayer and Stewart-Cousins said they opposed the concept, which has not been brought up to the state Senate as formal legislation. “I don’t see this as a pressing issue,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Resident Kat Fisher, a representative of the AARP, asked if the senators supported legislation to allow for the importation of prescription drugs from outside the United States to New York State and what else they would do to “fight the high cost of prescription drugs?”
Stewart-Cousins said the Senate would continue to discuss the legislation.