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Legislature to take up early voting, easier registration

ALBANY — Lawmakers in New York are poised to approve early voting and easier registration as part of a major overhaul of the state’s antiquated voting laws, which have been blamed for decades of low turnout at the polls.

The Senate and Assembly both plan to take up a package of election and voting reform bills on Monday, the first full day of the 2019 legislative session. The quick timing reflects the importance of the changes, as well as the deep frustration that New York has lagged other states in modernizing their election laws.

“We are going to make our democracy work,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers.

The highest profile of the bills would allow voters to cast a ballot at their polling place up to 10 days before an election. More than 30 states already have some form of advance voting, and the option has become increasingly popular in many states. Long lines seen at many polling places in New York last November show the need for the option, supporters say.

Early voting and other changes up for debate have long been blocked by Republicans in the state Senate. Democrats wrested control of the chamber from the GOP in last November’s elections, and are promising quick action on reforms.

Good-government groups that have advocated for the changes for years will be watching to see if they follow through on the promise.

“There’s no reason we should be trying to cram millions of voters into a 15-hour window on a single day, while 37 other states enjoy days or weeks to vote,” said Susan Lerner, director of Common Cause-New York. “It’s time to see if a unified Democratic government can truly deliver on progressive voting reforms.”

Another measure would consolidate state and federal primaries into a single election in June, replacing the current, often confusing calendar of multiple primaries. A third would preregister 16- and 17-year olds when they sign up for a driving permit so they would automatically be registered when they turn 18.

Lawmakers will also take up proposed state constitutional amendments that, if passed and approved by voters, would allow for registration on election day and rewrite the state’s absentee voting rules to allow anyone to request an absentee ballot. Currently, voters must give a reason in order to vote absentee, such as chronic illness or travel plans.

“To me these are really commonsense reforms,” said Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn and the sponsor of the early voting bill.

Finally, lawmakers also plan to vote on a bill Monday to impose new campaign finance limits on contributions from limited liability corporations, ending a loophole that had allowed LLCs to contribute vast sums to campaigns without disclosing specific individuals giving the money.

New York was among the worst 10 states for turnout in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, continuing a decades-long trend of low turnout. Critics including good-government groups have blamed the state’s voting rules for the apathy, saying onerous rules, multiple primaries and rigid registration deadlines keep many at home.

Supporters say the changes are likely to boost turnout most among groups that are typically underrepresented on Election Day, such as young voters and immigrants. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York by more than 2-to-1.

One change not scheduled to be considered on Monday would relax party enrollment deadlines before primaries. Current rules require voters to sign up with a party sometimes months ahead of a primary in order to cast a ballot. That led to widespread complaints in 2016 from voters who wanted to cast a ballot in the Democratic or Republican presidential primaries only to find that they needed to register with their party more than six months earlier. Two of Donald Trump’s children were among the voters who missed the deadline and couldn’t cast a GOP primary ballot.

Federal workers get $0 pay stubs as shutdown drags on

Federal employees received pay stubs with nothing but zeros on them Friday as the effects of the government shutdown hit home, deepening anxieties about mortgage payments and unpaid bills.

All told, an estimated 800,000 government workers missed their paychecks for the first time since the shutdown began.

Employees posted pictures of the pay stubs on Twitter and vented their frustration as the standoff over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall entered its 21st day. This weekend, it will become the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

“I saw the zeros in my pay stub today, and it’s a combination of reality setting in and just sadness,” air traffic controller Josh Maria told The Associated Press after tweeting a screenshot of his paystub. “We’re America. We can do better than this.”

The missed paychecks were just one sign of the mounting toll the shutdown is taking on Americans’ daily lives.

The Miami airport is closing a terminal this weekend because security screeners have been calling in sick at twice the normal rate. Homebuyers are experiencing delays in getting their loans.

Roughly 420,000 federal employees were deemed essential and are working unpaid. An additional 380,000 are staying home without pay. While furloughed federal workers have been given back pay in previous shutdowns, there is no guarantee that will happen this time.

Workers are turning to Uber, Lyft and other side gigs to pick up some money in the meantime. In Falls Church, Virginia, outside Washington, a school district was holding a hiring fair for furloughed federal employees interested in working as substitute teachers.

Chris George, 48, of Hemet, California, has picked up some work as a handyman, turned to a crowdfunding site to raise some cash and started driving at Lyft after being furloughed from his job as a forestry technician supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service.

But the side gigs aren’t making much difference, and he has been trying to work with his mortgage company to avoid missing a payment.

“Here we are, Day 21, and all three parties cannot even negotiate like adults,” he said, describing government workers like him as “being pawns for an agenda of a wall. You’re not going to put a wall across the Rio Grande, I’m sorry.”

Economists at S&P Global said the shutdown has cost the U.S. economy $3.6 billion so far.

The typical federal employee makes $37 an hour, which translates into $1,480 a week, according to Labor Department data. That’s nearly $1.2 billion in lost pay each week, when multiplied by 800,000 federal workers.

Many workers live paycheck to paycheck, despite the strong economy and the ultra-low unemployment rate. A Federal Reserve survey in May found that 40 percent of Americans would have to borrow or sell something to make a $400 emergency payment.

Government workers are scaling back spending, canceling trips, applying for unemployment benefits and taking out loans to stay afloat.

Maria, based in Washington, was already in a financially precarious situation because of two cross-country moves in 2018 and the birth of a premature son. The shutdown has made matters much worse.

“I’m just not paying certain bills. Car payments are being delayed, which is going to put a hit on the credit,” he said. “Credit card payments are being delayed.”

Maria took out a personal loan last week just in case. Now he is pulling his 4-year-old daughter out of day care and telling his 7-year-old son he cannot sign up for extracurricular activities.

Tiauna Guerra, one of 3,750 furloughed IRS workers in Ogden, Utah, said employers don’t want to hire her when she explains her situation because they don’t want to lose her in a few weeks.

In the meantime, she is taking out a loan to make her car payment, and she and her husband are delaying plans to move out of her parents’ house until the shutdown ends.

“We’re barely getting by,” said Guerra, a mother of two small children. “We are not able to pay a lot of our bills. We’re having a hard time trying to buy gas, food.”

Most of the government workers received their last paycheck two weeks ago. Around the country, some workers are relying on donations, including launching GoFundMe campaigns. Food pantries have opened up in several locations.

In Massachusetts, a private group has stepped up to ensure that those working at local Coast Guard stations have food and clothing. Don Cox, president of the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, said the nonprofit group has opened up centers at Coast Guard stations in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

The group is helping feed 500 to 600 families a day during the shutdown, about double the typical demand, Cox said.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years. This is my fourth shutdown,” Cox said. “I wish the senators and the congressmen weren’t taking their paychecks. I’d feel a lot better then.”

Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado said she would not take her paycheck as long as federal workers were unpaid. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, another Colorado Democrat, said his staff would offer free breakfasts and lunches to unpaid federal workers at his district office in suburban Denver starting Friday.

Counties call on state to fund state mandated programs

ALBANY — County governments are urging state lawmakers to fund school resource officers for all districts and to spare them from having to foot the bill if New York adopts a “cashless” bail system for non-violent felonies and all misdemeanor offenses.

The push to end cash bail for so-called minor crimes is being led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic allies in the state Assembly and Senate.

The drive to get funding to enhance the security of public schools by equipping them with resource officers was touted by Senate Republicans last year before that idea got bottled up by Assembly Democrats. The Senate flips this year to Democratic control.

Laundry list

The two goals are part of a laundry list of legislative priorities being advanced by the New York State Association of Counties.

The common thread running throughout the group’s agenda is that it wants the state to put its money where its mouth is when creating new programs or expanding existing ones that force county agencies to deliver the services to the public.

If lawmakers give the green light to marijuana legalization, as Cuomo suggests, then the state should cough up money to help with public education campaigns and help the counties to respond to the public health and safety impacts, NYSAC argued.

The counties also insist that the state should be reimbursing them for the costs of locking up parole violators kept in custody for more than 10 days.

They also want lawmakers to address what they say is a need for a “level playing field” between traditional taxi companies and rideshare operations such as Uber and Lyft.

High taxes

But the over-arching concern of the Association of Counties is New York’s high property tax rates, said the group’s director, Stephen Acquario.

“If there is one unifying call to action in our 2019 legislative program, it is asking the governor and state lawmakers to address unfunded state mandates currently paid for by local homeowners and businesses,” Acquario said.

As a former mayor of North Tonawanda, state Sen. Rob Ortt, R-Lockport, said the counties are correct in suggesting that many moves made by Albany have far-reaching consequences for local governments in New York.

He said the Raise the Age initiative, boosting the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 later this year, has brought with it additional responsibilities for counties, such as transporting young prisoners and having to hire more probation officers to deal with a population that can no longer be held with adult inmates.

Noting he has serious reservations with Cuomo’s cashless bail proposal, Ortt said that before lawmakers embrace it “we should address the concerns about the additional costs on the counties instead of saying we’re these great social justice warriors.”

If persons who have been arrested end up absconding, “the local governments should be able to cover the costs” of having to return them to the courts, he said.

Reimburse timely

The former head of the Franklin County Legislature, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said county governments have had plenty of experience being saddled with state mandates from Albany without getting the state aid to pay for the services.

“We should make sure we reimburse these counties — and do it in a timely manner so they’re not caught holding the bag, waiting several months to get the money back from the state,” Jones said.

Noting his top priority this year is to make New York’s property tax cap permanent, Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, said the focus of lawmakers should be “doing away with the unfunded mandates and to make sure we don’t shift additional burdens on the backs of local governments, particularly the counties.”

Reviewing any legislation in the new session should be done with the financial impacts the measures would have on local governments and taxpayers, said Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury.

“New state programs and services should come with funding out of the state budget, not the county,” Little said. “It’s not fair otherwise.”

Combine primaries

The counties’ wish-list also included suggestions that legislators move to combine state and federal primary elections or fund the cost of “duplicative” primaries.

NYSAC also urged that the state pay for early voting — allowing citizens to cast ballots in advance of traditional election days — should voting opportunities be expanded in the state.

Meanwhile, the cost of pay hikes for county district attorneys — their salaries are set by the state — should be paid by the state, NYSAC recommended.

Episcopal Church allows same-sex marriage in Albany Diocese

ALBANY — The Episcopal Church on Friday cleared the way for same-sex marriages in an upstate New York diocese where they were barred by a bishop who claimed the church had been “hijacked by the “Gay Rights Agenda.”

The Rev. William Love now faces possible disciplinary action for his November directive barring same-sex marriages in the Albany-based diocese.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry wrote Friday that Love’s action “may constitute a canonical offense” and referred his case for disciplinary review. While the case is pending, Curry placed restrictions on Love that forbid him from penalizing clergy, laity or worshippers in the diocese for arranging or participating in same-sex marriages.

Church leaders in July overwhelmingly passed a same-sex marriage resolution that gives bishops with theological objections to same-sex marriages the option to have another bishop oversee services. Activists said Love is the only U.S. bishop entirely refusing to comply with that updated resolution, which went into effect Dec. 2.

“(A)s Presiding Bishop I am called upon to take steps to ensure that same-sex marriage in The Episcopal Church is available to all persons to the same extent and under the same conditions in all Dioceses of the Church where same-sex marriage is civilly legal,” Curry wrote in his letter.

The diocese said Love was out and not immediately available for comment.

Love served as a rector for St. Mary’s Church for 14 years and is the only U.S. bishop who has refused to comply with the new resolution.

In November, the Very Rev. David Beaulac of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lake Luzerne said the Rev. William Love’s pastoral letter that includes the directive states a policy that the diocese has always had.

Love wrote in his eight-page letter in November that: “The Episcopal Church and Western Society have been hijacked by the ‘Gay Rights Agenda,’ which is very well organized, very strategic, very well financed, and very powerful.”

He added: “Satan is having a heyday bringing division into the Church over these issues.”

Curry said that while he believed in Love’s sincerity and good will, the policy was mandatory for all dioceses.

Love can appeal and the process does not guarantee that he will be disciplined, but Curry’s action immediately takes away Love’s ability to discipline clergy who take part in same-sex ceremonies, said Christopher Hayes, a deputy to the general convention that adopted the resolution and chancellor of the Diocese of California.

“The presiding bishop’s action should take that fear away,” Hayes said.

Eight dioceses had previously refused to comply with an earlier 2015 resolution allowing same-sex marriage in the church.

Fort Edward man sentenced to 40 to life for sex assaults

FORT EDWARD — A Fort Edward man who repeatedly raped two young girls was sentenced Friday to 40 years to life in state prison as a judge told him his crimes were “hard to fathom.”

Richard M. Alger, 53, was convicted of six felonies and two misdemeanors after a jury trial in Washington County Court last month. Among the charges was a count of predatory sexual assault against a child, the state’s weightiest sex charge, for repeated rape of a girl younger than the age of 13. The other teen was younger than the age of 16.

The girls, with whom he was acquainted, testified of repeated sexual abuse in Fort Edward, including one incident where he suggested a threesome with them on a boat on the Hudson River.

The jury deliberated for about two hours before convicting him.

Washington County Judge Kelly McKeighan told Alger there was not an appropriate sentence for him to impose for the crimes that Alger committed, saying the girls will be dealing with the aftereffects of the abuse for the rest of their lives.

Alger had nothing to say before McKeighan imposed sentence, after he and the judge heard victims impact statements from his two victims, read by Washington County Crime Victims Specialist Robin McNeill.

One of the girls called Alger “sick and disgusting” and said that she did not feel safe being alone until he was arrested and jailed. She said she came forward “thinking of the other girls beside myself.”

“It makes me really happy that he is being locked up and it will make me and other girls safe,” the statement read.

The other girl said she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and had lost her ability to trust people because of the molestation.

“He took away a part of me I can’t get back,” she wrote.

Washington County Assistant District Attorney Brandon Rathbun, who prosecuted the case, asked McKeighan to impose the maximum sentence, calling the sexual abuse “well beyond what we usually see.” He reminded McKeighan that one of the victims was just 11 and called Alger a “serial rapist.”

“I believe justice is served for these two victims by the defendant serving the rest of his life in prison,” he said.

Defense lawyer Martin McGuinness pointed out that a plea deal offer during trial would have netted Alger a seven-year prison sentence, and he said his client shouldn’t be punished for taking the case to trial.

Rathbun, though, said the sentence should take into consideration all of the facts that came out during the trial, such as Alger raping one girl while the other was forced to watch.

Alger plans to appeal the convictions and sentence.