Albany set to tackle major items on budget, civil rights, an other issues in 2015

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

As 2014 draws to a close, the State Legislature in Albany already has a full agenda of major issues to tackle in the coming year ranging from the state budget to reform of public education, police, and civil rights for undocumented immigrants and LGBT New Yorkers.

The budget is likely to have the lion’s share of major items, most notably a $5 billion windfall from financial settlements with major banks. The extra cash, which is separate from the state’s budget, will likely be the subject of fierce debate in the partisan state legislature, which turned part-red with the Republican takeover of the Senate in November.

Ideas are already being floated for major infrastructure and revitalization projects, broad plans toward which Governor Andrew Cuomo has already indicated support. Both Democrats and Republicans have proposed job programs to hire New Yorkers for major infrastructure repairs. At the same time, Cuomo stated he does not want to spend the $5 billion on anything which creates recurring expenses, a desire that might hamper plans to expand existing infrastructure.

With the continued floundering of Common Core standards and battles over private charter schools and universal preschool programs in New York City, education will also be a major issue. It is likely that Albany will tackle caps on charter schools and teacher evaluations as Cuomo, a longtime supporter of charter schools and a frequent bane to teachers’ unions, might create a strange alliance with State and NYC Republicans to strip some or all mayoral power away from NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio on education.

NYC, and DeBlasio by extension, are also the center of another major battle over police reform in the aftermath of recent police-related deaths of unarmed men. Senate Democrats have promised public hearings on criminal justice reform in response to public outcry over the chokehold death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, including discussions of grand jury transparency and the use of special prosecutors in police misconduct cases. Legislation for greater grand jury transparency and a permanent special prosecutor position have already been proposed and are expected to be taken up in the 2015 session.

The fight over police reform is likely to be bitterly partisan, owing largely to growing police distrust in DeBlasio and Republican support for police. In response to the shooting deaths of two NYPD officers on December 20 by a mentally ill man as retaliation against Garner’s death. Senate Republicans have already proposed their own series of hearings on officer safety, which will feature discussions of statistics on assaults on officers, the impact of community policing and police disability and death benefits.

A lot of weight has also been placed on Cuomo to expand civil rights, though Republican control of the Senate might place him in a difficult position to do so. Cuomo had promised to pass reforms for Latino, female and LGBT voters who turned out to support his 2014 campaign and will likely be taken to task if he fails to deliver.

Among the reforms he promised to push are a New York State DREAM Act to expand opportunities for undocumented workers and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a bill which would prohibit discrimination against transgender New Yorkers in employment, housing, public accommodations, education and credit opportunities.