The state legislature has been scarred by ethics scandals for years, with lawmakers being charged or convicted of an array of crimes.
Most recently, former Sen. Vincent Leibell, one of Putnam County's most powerful politicians, was sentenced to 21 months in prison after admitting to taking kick-backs from attorneys at a non-profit group and trying to influence a grand jury. Meanwhile, two Brooklyn lawmakers are awaiting trials amid allegations that they took more than $1 million in bribes from hospital lobbyists.
To stem the tide of corruption, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had made ethics reform one of his top priorities this year. He wants to require lawmakers to disclose all of their outside income, as well as appoint an independent ethics watchdog, and he's threatened to subpoena lawmakers if they don't agree.
Last week, all seven Assembly members who represent Westchester came together to back Cuomo's proposals.
"While ethics reform is not a cure-all, it is an important and needed step towards bringing substantive and lasting reform to the most dysfunctional legislature in America," said Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge), who penned a letter to the Journal News that was also signed by Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh), Sandy Galef (D-Ossining), Steve Katz (R-Yorktown), George Latimer (D-Rye), Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) and Mike Spano (D-Yonkers).
The lawmakers are also backing a proposal that would strip the pensions of public officials convicted of felonies related to the abuse of office. That bill has been introduced in the Assembly by Galef and in the Senate by Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson).
"A conviction of a crime related to the betrayal of public trust [currently] carries with it no consequence in the entitlement to [a pension]," Galef wrote in a bill memo. "This is a gross misuse of public monies."
Because state workers are guaranteed pensions by the state constitution, that proposal could face legal challenges if it passes. To skirt that issue, Sen. David Carlucci has introduced a bill that would levy a 100 percent tax rate on the pensions of corrupt public officials, essentially returning the money back to the state.
The bipartisan support for the proposals is underscored by widespread public support. A recent Siena poll found that 80 percent of New Yorker support an ethics overhaul, with 25 percent listing it as their top priority.
Here's a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between May 13 and May 20:
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) introduced a bill that would require local governments to send 90-day notices to employees preparing to retire that would detail the provisions of the retiree's health care plan.
Abinanti and the entire Assembly delegation from Westchester last week called on the governor and legislative leaders to pass an ethics reform package that includes requirements for public disclosure of outside income, an independent ethics watchdog and stripping the pensions of public officials convicted of crimes related to the abuse of office. Gov. Cuomo is calling for similar measures, and has threatened to subpoena lawmakers if they don't get on board.
Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) did not introduce any bills.
Castelli announced that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has opened up a 30-day public comment period on the development of 6 Morgan Drive in Mount Kisco. The site is under consideration to be included as a "brownfield," which is a contaminated piece of land volunteers clean up to pave the way for future development. The DEC is accepting written comments about the proposal until June 7. A draft work plan is available to the public at the Mount Kisco Public Library.
Cuomo and members of his administration are touring the state to push for the freshman governor's top three priorities: same-sex marriage, ethics reform and a cap on annual property tax increases. Last week Castelli joined Ken Adams, Cuomo's economic development czar, at a stop in White Plains to urge the Assembly to pass the tax cap. The assemblyman said he also supports a "circuit breaker" in which property taxes are levied on a sliding scale based on income.
Castelli joined U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Friday at East View Middle School in White Plains to support the Urban Jobs Act, a bill sponsored by the junior senator that would provide grants to nonprofit agencies that offer employment assistance to people who lack a high-school diploma or have been incarcerated.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) introduced a local bill that would allow the New York Mills Historical Society in Whitestown to apply for a property-tax exemption.
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) introduced three bills, one of which would require health insurance policies to provide coverage for ultrasounds and screening tests for breast cancer.
The assemblywoman also wants the state to create a public education program on the potential hazards of well water, and require realtors to provide educational material to prospective buyers of homes that have wells.
Another bill would create the Rockland County Health Care Corporation, which would be tasked primarily with helping Rockland residents find health care. An identical bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. David Carlucci.
Jaffee is calling for a tax surcharge on wealthy New Yorkers, which is set to expire at the end of this year, to be continued permanently. The provision is part of a bill she introduced that would create a "circuit breaker" system of property taxes based on household income. Assembly leaders last week proposed a one-year surcharge on New Yorkers who earn more than $1 million a year, but Cuomo and Senate leaders oppose the tax.
Jaffee and Carlucci on Monday will hold a press conference to discuss a bill recently signed into law that allows Orange & Rockland Utilities and Orangetown to swap land for an energy project. The lawmakers will be joined by O&R Vice President James Tarpey.
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) introduced a bill that would prohibit state funds from being allocated to Planned Parenthood or any other organization that provides abortions. The law currently bars federal money from being used to perform abortions, leaving many organizations to rely solely on state money for those services. Only about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's work involves abortions.
Katz, the ranking Republican on the Assembly Mental Health Committee, joined some of his colleagues last week in applauding the passage of a package of legislation aimed at helping New Yorkers with disabilities. Some of the measures would reinstate the right of disabled state workers to sue the state for violations of anti-discrimination laws and require counties to maintain registries of disabled people for evacuations and emergencies.
The Pawling Library will receive a $20,646 state grant to install energy-efficient lighting, Katz announced last week. The state budget provides $14 million for library grants statewide.
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) introduced a bill that would create a second acting police justice in Port Chester.
Latimer on May 25 will hold a forum to probe service delays on Metro North trains. Latimer said he wants to create a working group of local residents to meet with MTA officials. The hearing is at the Mamaroneck Town Center from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) introduced a bill that would allow the city of New Rochelle to impose a 3 percent income tax on telecommunications companies that operate in the city.
She also wants to overhaul the process used by family courts to deal with "destitute" children -- those with no parents or legal guardians.
Paulin, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Children and Families, last week told the Gotham Gazette that she supports legislation that would give New York City the authority to decide where to send juvenile offenders. Currently, the state makes those decisions and often sends kids to far-flung corners of the state.
Many studies have shown that a convict's tendency toward recidivism is higher if they are incarcerated farther from home. Paulin said that while she supports the aim of the bill, she is concerned that the city may not have all the necessary resources to take on the task.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) introduced a bill that would provide a temporary fuel-tax credit of up to $500 for emergency response volunteers, such as volunteer firefighters and paramedics. The measure would expire at the end of 2014.
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson)
Ball on May 17 joined New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. David Carlucci and others to call on federal officials to reconsider cuts to the city's homeland security funding. Soon after, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that New York's funding would be kept the same as last year by cutting some other cities out of the funding program.
Ball and Albany-area Assemblyman Jim Tedisco will host an animal advocacy day at the Capitol on June 1. The purpose of the event is to call for the passage of bills that would steepen penalties for violations of animal cruelty laws. Ball has sponsored bills that would require people convicted of animal abuse to undergo psychiatric treatment and register their names with the state.
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) wants the state to create a research and education fund for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease. ALS destroys the neurons in the brain and spinal cord, affecting motor skills and often proving fatal within a few years of a diagnosis. The cause of ALS is unknown, and there is no cure. Carlucci's bill would allow people to check off a box on their income tax forms to donate to the fund.
The senator last week touted a package of previously introduced bills that he said would help farmers throughout the state. The measures would allow for low-interest loans to farms, bar utility companies from charging fees to farmers who use on-site generators and create a tax credit for restaurants that purchase produce grown within 100 miles of the establishment.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) did not introduce any bills.
Oppenheimer lauded Senate passage of a package of bills aimed at distracted and inconsiderate drivers. The bills include proposals to make texting while driving a primary offense, increase the penalties for passing a stopped school bus and making it illegal for a driver to force his way into the middle of a funeral procession.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) did not introduce any bills.
The senator held a press conference last week to call attention to a bill that would bar employers from denying an applicant a job based solely on his or her employment status. Stewart-Cousins cited job advertisements that asked unemployed people not to apply and a recent study that found unemployed applicants are less likely to get interviews than those who are already employed. The state's unemployment rate continues to hover around 8 percent.