Metzger touts bills to help NY farmers

Sen. Jen Metzger promoted 10 bills on Friday that have cleared the Senate and are intended to help farmers and bolster New York’s agriculture industry.

Most of the bills were approved that day or on Thursday, and all of them had unanimous support. Metzger, a Rosendale Democrat and chairwoman of Senate Agriculture Committee, sponsored seven of the bills, including one that would ease access to a student-loan forgiveness program for young farmers, and another that would make it easier for starting farmers to qualify for state grants.

“This package of legislation supports our long-term commitment to New York’s agricultural community, made up primarily of family-owned farms,” Metzger said in a statement. “We are making it easier for a new generation of farmers to enter the field, and helping existing farmers expand markets for the rich diversity of products that we produce. These bills also help to mitigate some of the financial and other obstacles that farmers face, particularly new farmers.”

Another bill that Metzger sponsored would offer technical assistance to help small-scale producers collaborate on selling their goods to large-scale buyers, so they can better compete in regional and national food markets.

Most of the farm bills are awaiting Assembly votes with three days to go in the legislative session.

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Cahill, Schmitt break with their parties on dropping religious exemptions for vaccines

Two mid-Hudson lawmakers bucked their parties’ prevailing positions on Thursday as the state Legislature voted to end New York’s religious exemptions from mandatory school vaccinations in the midst of a measles outbreak that has affected parts of their region.

Democrats largely supported removing the exemption from state law, arguing that religious freedom doesn’t extend to letting kids get sick and spread a preventable illness, while Republicans largely voted in opposition after speaking in support of religious rights. Two outliers: Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a Kingston Democrat who voted against the bill; and Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, a New Windsor Republican who supported it.

“Addressing the ongoing public health crisis is a laudable and well intentioned goal, but the bill passed by the Assembly today to repeal the religious exemption from vaccinations raises several concerns; none of which relate to the science around immunizations,” Cahill said in a statement explaining his vote. “One of the founding principles of our democracy is freedom of religion. An incremental roll back of this fundamental right sets a dangerous precedent and as a lawmaker, that alone was enough to vote against this bill on the floor today.”

Schmitt said a statement: “We need to follow policies that are designed to protect the health of the entire public. Vaccines are proven to be the safest and best way to protect the public from outbreaks of serious, sometimes life threatening diseases. This bill is intended to assure high rates of vaccine compliance which not only protects the vaccinated, but extends protection to populations vulnerable to disease from unvaccinated people – such as senior citizens, immune-compromised individuals, transplant patients and infants too young to be vaccinated.”

Also voting for the bill were: Sens. James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, and Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale; and Assembly members Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, and Jonathan Jacobson, D-City of Newburgh.

“The clock is ticking, outbreaks are rising, and here in the state Senate, we are doing something about it,” Skoufis said after the vote. “Vaccines save lives, and unless there is a legitimate medical reason why someone can’t be vaccinated, immunizations ought to be required if that individual wants to be in public spaces. I’m proud that we took this step today and followed the scientific consensus to ensure the public’s health is protected.”

Jacobson said: “This was a common sense health bill. There is no greater priority and compelling state interest than protecting the public health.”

In addition to Cahill, local representatives who voted against the bill were Sens. James Seward, R-Milford, and George Amedore, R-Rotterdam; and Assemblymen Karl Brabenec, R-Deerpark, and Brian Miller, R-New Hartford.

The Assembly passed the bill in an 84-61 vote, following by the Senate’s 36-26 vote. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced immediately after the Senate vote that he already had signed the bill.

As of Thursday, Orange County had confirmed 49 measles cases since the fall and Sullivan had seven. The outbreak has spread largely among unvaccinated Hasidic kids and has taken its greatest toll in New York City, which has had 588 measles cases, and in Rockland County, which has had 266.

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Skoufis bill would create state agency for the physically disabled

State lawmakers have passed a bill by Sen. James Skoufis that would re-establish a state agency that advocates on behalf of New Yorkers with physical disabilities – something that once existed in Albany but no longer does.

The bill to create the Office of the Advocate for People with Disabilities was approved on May 29 – the annual Legislative Disabilities Awareness Day – by 140-0 in the Assembly and 52-8 in the Senate. It will go next to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign or veto.

“Long overdue, we must re-open an agency-level advocacy office for the rights of people with disabilities so that people with physical hardships receive the services and support that enable them to make informed choices,” Skoufis, D-Woodbury, said in a statement. “I’ve long been advocating for this office since my time in the Assembly as it’s imperative that these individuals have somewhere in state government to go for assistance.”

Doug Hovey, president and CEO of Independent Living Inc. in Newburgh, pointed out in an interview that the state has agencies to represent people with development disabilities, mental illness, and alcohol or drug dependency – but none for those with physical disabilities. The office it once had for that purpose was mostly symbolic, he said, but he had hoped it would grow into a more powerful advocate.

Instead, the state defunded the office after forming the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs in 2013, Hovey said. He said the Justice Center focuses on people with developmental disabilities, not those with physical or sensory impairments.

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Assembly set to pass bill allowing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants

The Assembly is expected to approve a bill on Tuesday that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, a politically charged proposal that faces uncertain prospects in the Senate in the closing weeks of the 2019 legislative session.

Democratic lawmakers and advocates argue the Green Light bill would improve road safety by getting undocumented immigrants who already drive to get licenses, which means taking road tests, getting insurance and annual vehicle inspections. Those who don’t drive without licenses could now do so legally, enabling them to get to work and grocery stores and take their children to school, supporters say, framing the argument partly in economic and humanitarian terms.

“From farm laborers to construction jobs, the tight labor market and lowering unemployment rates have created a shortage of workers for many of New York’s industries,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a joint statement on Wednesday with Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a fellow Bronx Democrat. “For farmers in rural New York, the ability of their laborers to get to and from work is critical to their livelihood. Simply put, our economy depends on people being able to get to work.”

Republicans have vilified the proposal as an undeserved accommodation that poses security risks and rewards people who have broken the law by entering the country illegally. GOP lawmakers from the mid-Hudson region fired off statements in opposition to the Green Light bill after a Republican press conference in Albany denouncing the measure on Wednesday.

“This radical legislation undermines the laws of our land, threatens our national security, puts overall public safety at risk and benefits people here circumventing the rule of law,” Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, R-New Windsor, said in his statement. “Our focus should be on legislation that benefits law-abiding citizens, working to ease the path to legal citizenship and holding those accountable who break the law.”

Assemblyman Karl Brabenec, a Deerpark Republican, called the proposal “as dangerous as it is insulting,” and accused Assembly Democrats of “rewarding criminals, prison inmates and illegal aliens” while ignoring “the law-abiding middle class.”

Yet one of the Republicans’ traditional allies, the state Business Council, has backed Democrats on the issue. “We are supporting this bill because it sends a signal to Washington that comprehensive immigration reform is a necessary business issue, and because it’s the right and decent thing to do,” Heather Briccetti, the council’s president and CEO, said in a recent statement. “It is an opportunity to support billions in annual economic activity, and state and local tax collections, driven by hardworking undocumented families around the state.”

A number of county clerks, who run Department of Motor Vehicles offices on behalf of the state in most of upstate, including in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, oppose the bill or say they have strong misgivings.

Sullivan County Clerk Dan Briggs, a Republican, told the Times Herald-Record this week that he’s concerned about his office having to decipher foreign birth certificates and somehow determine if they are legitimate. “We’re not staffed nor equipped to do that,” he said. In addition to that practical objection, Briggs said, issuing licenses based on unfamiliar documents presents a security risk if his office couldn’t verify the applicants’ identity.

Democrats won control of the Senate in November and now hold a huge edge over Republicans in the chamber. But published reports on Thursday indicated the state’s Democratic chairman, Jay Jacobs, is discouraging a Senate vote on the bill because he thinks it could cost members their seats and his party its majority. Only seven voting days remain until the legislative session ends on June 19.

Two of five Democrats representing Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties in Albany – Assemblymen Kevin Cahill of Kingston and Jonathan Jacobson of the City of Newburgh – are co-sponsoring the bill. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther of Forestburgh and Sens. Jen Metzger of Rosendale and James Skoufis of Woodbury are not.

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Metzger bill would expedite 6 a.m. primary start

The state Senate approved a bill by Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, on Tuesday that would open polls six hours earlier in 49 New York counties – including Ulster and Sullivan – for Democratic voters casting ballots in the April 28 presidential primary.

The legislation stems from an oversight in a provision in this year’s state budget that established uniform voting hours across the state for primary elections. Previously, polls had opened at 6 a.m. in New York City and the suburban counties (plus Orange and few others upstate), but at noon in the rest of the state. The budget made it 6 a.m. everywhere, starting 120 days after the start of 2020.

Rut-roh. That fell exactly two days after New York’s Democratic presidential primary, which means most upstaters couldn’t have hit the polls until after noon.

Metzger’s bill corrects that problem with one cross-out and three digits: instead of 120 days after Jan. 1, the new primary hours would take effect in 115 days.

Senators voted 60-2 in support of the bill, still pending in the Assembly.

“We have a very important Presidential primary coming up next year, and there is no reason to delay implementation of this legislation,” Metzger said in a statement afterward. “Voters in Ulster, Sullivan, Delaware, and other upstate counties should have the same access to the polls that voters in New York City and other counties have.”

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Roscoe penalty waiver clears Legislature

One of three bills that would spare four local school districts – Newburgh, Chester, Monticello and Roscoe – a combined $19 million in state penalties for allegedly failing to submit reports for past building projects has now been approved by both legislative chambers in Albany.

The Assembly voted unanimously for a bill waiving Roscoe School District’s $1.4 million fine on Thursday, about two weeks after senators did the same. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, and Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, sponsored that bill.

The Senate approved similar bills on behalf of Newburgh, Chester and Monticello school districts on May 15, and the Assembly has moved them through two committees and is poised to pass them as well. (Their sponsors are Gunther, Metzger, Sen. James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, and Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson, D-City of Newburgh.) Those two bills would forgive fines of $12.5 million for Newburgh, $3.3 million for Chester and $1.9 million for Monticello (Newburgh and Chester are combined in a single bill).

The bills’ fate after clearing the Legislature is uncertain. Lawmakers approved similar legislation for three of those districts last year but didn’t send it to Gov. Andrew Cuomo until December, at which time he vetoed the bills. He said then that the proposals should be addressed in the state budget, although lawmakers were then unable to include the waivers in the budget enacted this spring.

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Cahill bill would let upstate cities opt for rent regulations

Among the proposals pending in Albany with three weeks to go in the session is a bill that would let upstate cities like Newburgh and Kingston opt for the same sort of restrictions on rent increases now in effect in New York City and offered to municipalities in three suburban counties.

The bill, sponsored in the Assembly by Kingston Democrat Kevin Cahill, already has been endorsed by the Newburgh and Kingston councils, each of which passed resolutions in support of the bill.

Kingston’s aldermen voted 8-1 on May 8 to support the legislation, declaring the city has an “unmet need for affordable housing opportunities to serve low and moderate income residents,” but no authority under current law “to form a local board that would determine annual allowable rental increases in order to protect tenants from arbitrary rent increases.”

Cahill’s bill would drop geographic limitations from the 1974 Emergency Tenant Protection Act so that any municipality in New York could opt into rent and eviction regulations if it has a housing emergency, defined as a vacancy rate of five percent or less. Those rules apply to apartment buildings with six or more units that were built before 1974, and are available now only in New York City and Rockland, Westchester and Nassau counties.

“Finding affordable housing is not an issue exclusive to our bigger cities and their surrounding areas,” Cahill said in a press release in April. “Tenants need and deserve protection regardless of where they live. This legislation provides a common-sense opt-in tool for municipalities all over the state to deal with rent emergencies.”

Co-sponsors of the bill include Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson, a City of Newburgh Democrat, and Democratic senators Jen Metzger of Rosendale and James Skoufis of Woodbury.

The Newburgh council passed its resolution supporting the bill on March 11. City Manager Joe Donat said at the time that 70 percent of Newburgh’s residential properties are rentals. “Essentially, it’s all about predictability for both the landlord and the renter,” Councilwoman Karen Mejia said of the legislation then.

The bill is one of nine that tenant advocates are pushing to strengthen protections against steep rent increases and evictions as lawmakers prepare to renew New York City rent regulations, which are set to expire on June 15. Other proposals would force landlords to provide a “good cause” in order to evict a tenant, such as failure to pay rent, and enable the owners of mobile homes to challenge their rent increases.

The Legislature’s Democratic leaders, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, issued a joint statement on Thursday vowing to “enact the strongest rent package ever – one that protects tenants and makes New York more affordable for all its residents.”

“It is clear landlords have had an unfair advantage for many years and that equity must be restored,” the statement read. “Both the Senate and Assembly majorities share a deep commitment to helping New Yorkers stay in their homes. United, we will advance a historic package of tenant protections that encompasses the principles of the nine bills that tenants have long awaited and deserve, as well as other critical housing protections.”

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Jacobson cheers passage of bill to ban “ghost guns”

The Assembly approved a bill on Monday that prohibits making, selling or possessing plastic guns to prevent the proliferation of firearms that can be made with 3-D printing technology and can evade metal detectors.

The proposal had been approved the previous week by the Senate and now goes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature.

“They’re called ‘ghost’ guns because they are invisible to metal detectors,” Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson, a City of Newburgh Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement after the vote. “It’s just common sense to prohibit people to own guns which can easily be smuggled into school or planes.”

The passage of the 3-D gun bill follows the enactment of a slew of other gun control measures in Albany this year, including one that allows courts to issue an “extreme risk protection order” to remove guns from someone determined to be a threat to themselves or others.

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Delgado touts bill to encourage hiring military spouses

Rep. Antonio Delgado introduced a bill with five Republican and Democratic co-sponsors on Wednesday that would encourage employers to hire the spouses of military service personnel by making a portion of those wages eligible for an existing tax credit for the hiring of veterans and other types of employees.

“Military families make immense sacrifices for our country, yet military spouses experience an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent,” Delgado, a Rhinebeck Democrat, said in a press release. “Supporting military families is a top priority, and I’m proud to introduce legislation to address the military spouse unemployment crisis and empower thousands of families in Upstate New York and across the country.”

Current law allows businesses to claim a Workforce Opportunity Tax Credit for hiring military veterans and other targeted groups. Delgado’s short bill would simply add military spouses to that list.

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GOP lawmakers propose eliminating income tax for volunteer firefights, EMTs

At least four bills already were pending in Albany to increase by varying amounts the $200 credit that volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers currently can claim to lower their state income taxes.

But a group of Republican lawmakers, most of whom had sponsored one or more of those credit-hiking bills, went for broke this month by proposing instead to simply eliminate state income taxes altogether for those unpaid emergency responders. Their new bill would extend that full tax exemption to any trained and certified member who has been on the force for at least a year and participated in at least 55 percent of the activities, starting with the 2020 tax year.

The sole Senate sponsor is James Seward of Otsego County, whose district includes four Ulster County towns. “This exemption would serve as a well-deserved thank you for the men and women who give freely of themselves to keep our communities safe,” he said in a statement on Monday. “The legislation would also be a powerful recruitment tool to help boost our depleted volunteer EMS rolls.”

Eight assemblymen are sponsoring the bill, led by Chris Tague of Schoharie County, whose district overlaps with Seward’s and includes Saugerties in Ulster County.

Assemblyman Karl Brabenec, a co-sponsor from Deerpark, said by phone this week that the tax exemption would cost the state an estimated $300 million. That pricetag, plus the fact that no one from the Democratic majorities in either chamber is on board, does not bode well for the bill. Yet the sponsors argue that waiving income taxes for volunteer responders would be much cheaper than localities spending $3.9 billion a year to employ all-paid departments, were that ever to happen.

Brabenec said that retaining members and recruiting new ones is getting harder for volunteer forces across the state, and that a big lobbying effort would be waged in support of the bill.

“We’re going to keep pushing this,” he said.

Under current state law, volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers are entitled to claim a $200 refundable credit on their state income taxes, or $400 for joint filers if both spouses are volunteers. Multiple proposals before the state Legislature would increase those amounts. One bill would raise the individual credit to $500 and then to $1,000 after five years of service. The most generous proposal would hike it to $2,500.

Volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers in New York also are entitled to reductions in their property taxes if authorized by their school districts and local governments.

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