NEWS AND ISSUES
February 2012 Community Report
The following is a summary of some of my office's activities since my last community report:
Opposing Religious Services in Public Schools
On February 12, I was one of seven legislators to vote against a bill introduced by Senator Martin Golden (S.6087-A) which would authorize religious meetings in public school buildings and school sites when they are not in use for educational purposes.
This legislation is the direct result of a June, 2011 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education, the Court ruled that the New York City Board of Education had acted reasonably and constitutionally when the Board adopted policies that prohibited the use of public school facilities for religious worship services.
The legislation recently voted on by the Senate attempts to do an end-run around the Court decision – and ultimately the First Amendment?s Establishment Clause. The bill cynically would allow "religious meetings" to be held in public school buildings, while continuing the ban on "religious worship." I believe this is a difference without a distinction and the sponsors of the bill could not articulate how "religious meetings" would differ from actual "religious worship."
I believe this legislation violates the Establishment Clauses of the both the U.S. and New York State Constitutions. Further, it creates a troubling scenario in which a government entity must decide which religious entities can hold services in a public school building. It should also be noted that if a religious institution rents a public school for worship services at a subsidized rate, it creates an unacceptable situation in which a government entity is subsidizing a particular religion.
The bill is currently pending in the State Assembly Education Committee. I will continue to keep you updated on the status of the bill if and when there is any action taken in the Assembly.
Voting Against the Expansion of the DNA Database
On January 31, the New York State Senate passed legislation, sponsored by Senator Stephen Saland (S.5560-A), which would dramatically increase New York State?s DNA database by requiring anyone convicted of any felony or misdemeanor to submit a DNA sample. Under the current law, only those convicted of felonies, some attempted felonies and 18 misdemeanors related to sexual offenses are mandated to submit a sample to the State's DNA identification index. This results in DNA now being collected from roughly 46% of those convicted of crimes in New York State.
I was one of ten Senators to vote against the DNA database expansion bill. At first glance the idea of an all inclusive DNA database seems to make sense. However, there are many problems that need to be addressed before I can support such a measure. It is unclear how the State of New York will be able collect, maintain and properly store the significant additional DNA samples that would result from this legislation. In fact, there are still many unanswered questioned as to the integrity of the DNA samples being held in New York's DNA database since the last expansion in 2006.
On the floor of the Senate, I brought to my colleagues' attention the utter lack of scientific data – not only in New York State, but in the entire nation – as to the success of using DNA samples in "cold hit" convictions. Most of those convicted with DNA evidence were already suspects in the crime via other conventional law enforcement techniques. Further, I pointed out that the most effective way to increase rightful convictions is to improve traditional methods, such as improving identification via sequential lineups and videotaped confessions and barring prosecutors' introduction of unreliable and jury-prejudicing "jailhouse snitch" testimony. It is my belief that if we work to improve these areas, we will see a major decrease in convictions thrown out by courts due to tainted evidence.
It is important to note that this legislation has no sponsor in the State Assembly and has effectively stalled. However, I will continue to educate my colleagues as to why expansion of the DNA database cannot, and in the interest of justice, must not be rushed until we have the proper data, technology and infrastructure in place.
Calling for Reforms to City's School Phase-Out Policy
As you probably know, on February 9, the Panel for Education Policy (PEP) rubberstamped proposals by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to phase-out twenty three schools it considers to be underperforming. It is less well-known that the PEP also approved dozens of new small schools DOE proposed to open in the closing schools' buildings, in most – if not all – cases without any consultation of the affected communities. On February 16, I wrote a letter to DOE Chancellor Dennis Walcott urging the agency to establish a formal process to engage affected families and other stakeholders in sharing their priorities, if not their concrete proposals, for the new school that will serve their communities. I also urged the agency to allow schools undergoing reform initiatives to have sufficient time to demonstrate success prior to being selected for phase-out. Finally, I requested that the agency provide a comparative analysis of the students attending schools already undergoing phase-out and those that are phasing-in to ensure that high-needs students are not slipping through the cracks in the race to improve test scores and graduation rates. Please see my letter here.
Addressing the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies' AIDS Leadership Coalition
Because of my history of advocacy and leadership in the New York State Senate on HIV/AIDS issues, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies? AIDS Leadership Coalition invited me to address its first meeting of the year. I was honored to speak to this advisory group, composed of leaders of some of New York City's most esteemed HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations and service providers, who work to identify and shape humane and just public health policies for New York communities affected by HIV and AIDS.
The Coalition was particularly interested in my reaction to Governor Cuomo's Fiscal Year 2012-13 Executive Budget. I noted that the Executive Budget proposes to close the State's $1.9 billion budget gap with no new taxes, fees and includes zero growth in State agency spending. While it is essential that New York State be fiscally responsible during these tough times, I will continue the fight to protect essential programs and services that are vital to our community, some of which have already been cut too far. Toward that end, I will join many of my colleagues in fighting to extend the millionaires' tax.
The New York State AIDS Institute's proposed funding is essentially flat, which is relatively good news. Nonetheless, there are specific HIV/AIDS budget priorities on which I am focused. I, along with many others, will continue advocating, and I believe we will be successful in, reinstating Medicaid coverage of enteral nutrition support products for people with HIV/AIDS who are actively losing weight. This was eliminated last year as part of the Medicaid redesign program. Because I have made the case, along with many advocates, that this cut disproportionately hurts the most vulnerable New Yorkers and will also fail to provide the intended cost savings, I am extremely optimistic that this coverage will be restored.
I am particularly concerned about the dramatic decline in State funding for Runaway and Homeless Youth programs in recent years, from $6.8 million in 2007 to $2.35 million last year, with only $744,379 going to shelters in New York City. The allocation remains flat in the FY 2012-13 Executive Budget and it is simply not sufficient to meet demand. Young people living on the streets are particularly susceptible to HIV infection and other tragic situations, and we must do more to provide them shelter and a gateway to services.
I will also continue to advocate for new funding for training in HIV prevention and treatment for older adults, who are becoming infected with HIV at alarming rates; to facilitate New York State Department of Health oversight of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C prevention and treatment in prisons and jails; and to provide HIV Legal Services, among other priorities, although these will be challenging.
I applauded the members of the AIDS Leadership Coalition for their work and urged them to come to the Albany to lobby for their funding and policy priorities even more this year than they have in the past. I urge all of my constituents to do the same.
Monitoring Implementation of NYC Bike Share
As a longtime supporter of reforms to our transportation infrastructure that improve safety and convenience for all users, I am pleased that the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) is moving forward with plans to establish a Bike Share network. I am also gratified that the agency has proactively consulted communities Citywide as it identifies sites for bike stations, and has given special consideration to the needs of New Yorkers with disabilities.
Nearly two years ago I wrote to DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and met with Manhattan Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione to urge the agency to initiate a review process through which to analyze the projected impacts of its initiatives on the accessibility of affected areas. I am encouraged that the agency has taken this request to heart. Recently, when my office reached out to DOT with concerns raised by advocates for people with disabilities that the setbacks for the bike stations – from cellar doors, building entrances, etc. – might not be wide enough for wheelchair access, DOT responded that they will, in fact, be even wider than the setbacks currently required for bus shelters. Likewise, while the agency is considering on-street bike stations that would be located in general metered parking spaces and certain no-standing zones, it is committed to not using spaces that are uniquely available to disabled drivers with special parking permits.
I will continue to monitor the implementation of the Bike Share program, and I appreciate DOT efforts to ensure that it is a welcome initiative for cyclists and pedestrians alike, disabled and non-disabled.
Defending Access to Birth Control
On February 7, I joined Catholics for Choice at a press conference expressing support for President Barack Obama's recently issued administrative rule that would require health insurance plans, including those of religiously affiliated hospitals and other organizations, to cover birth control without co-pays. Later that week, I joined 33 of my colleagues in the New York State Bipartisan Pro-Choice Legislative Caucus in sending a letter to President Obama echoing those sentiments and urging him to stay firm in that decision despite intense conservative pressure. We noted that the rule the President had issued already contained a strong exemption allowing approximately 335,000 houses of worship to refuse to provide birth control coverage for their employees. This exemption is nearly identical to the one in New York State?s contraceptive coverage law, which was groundbreaking when it passed in 2002 but has held up both in the courts and in practice over the past decade. I was gratified that the President stood his ground and simply revised the rule on birth control coverage so that institutions affiliated with a religion could shift the cost of coverage to their insurance companies. Reproductive health care is health care, and health care is a right that everyone in our country should have.
Rallying Against NYU's Village-Swallowing Plans
On February 11, I joined Assembly Member Deborah Glick, Community Action Alliance on NYU 2031, Greenwich Village Block Associations, and Friends of LaGuardia Place for a rally to preserve the Village and in opposition to NYU's 2031 plan to add nearly two and a half million square feet of campus space on its two superblocks south of Washington Square Park.
Although I respect the City's land use review procedure, and rarely speak out on an application before the Community Board has had its say, this project is simply too big and out of scale with our community for me not to rally against it. Further, it would destroy our beloved Sasaki Garden and cut off access to public open space in our park-starved neighborhood, turning it into a campus plaza for students – not for us.
As I said at the rally, I applaud Brad Hoylman and everyone on CB2 for all of their hard work analyzing every aspect of this proposed development. Since the university first filed its application nearly a year ago, these volunteers have dedicated themselves to fighting for the Village. Over the two months of public hearings they have spent countless hours thoroughly reviewing the potential impacts of this proposal to strengthen our side in this fight.
NYU is part of our community but we will not – and cannot – allow it to barrel forward with these large-scale, Village-swallowing plans without respect for our neighborhood, our neighbors and all that we love in the Village.
Seeking Volunteers for Christopher Street Area Illumination Survey
I, along with NYS Assembly Member Deborah Glick, U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Community Board 2 and the West Village Coalition, are seeking volunteers to help conduct an Illumination Survey of Christopher Street and the surrounding area on March 15, 2012 at 7:00 PM. We will be meeting at St. John?s Lutheran Church, 81 Christopher Street, (between 7th Avenue and Bleecker Street), and going out in teams to assess if City-installed street lamps are functioning, if any of those street lamps are obstructed by tree branches, and if residences have legally-required outdoor lighting. If you would like to help, please RSVP to Robert Atterbury at (212) 633-8052 or email@example.com by Monday, March 12.
Promoting Literacy and Better Quality of Life at 30th Street Men's Shelter
Last year, I and members of my staff joined the inspired initiative spearheaded by Carol Rinzler and Louis Dankberg to donate magazine subscriptions to the 30th Street Men's Shelter. Simple, relatively inexpensive gestures such as donating magazine subscriptions can dramatically improve the shelter residents' quality of life. As I renew my magazine subscriptions, I ask that you also consider renewing yours or donating a new one if you have not done so already. Subscriptions should be addressed to Frank Rivera, Director, 30th Street Men's Shelter, 400-430 East 30 Street, New York, NY 10016.