State Sen. Betty Little is preparing for the beginning of the six-month legislative session, with members getting an early start this week organizing and strategizing before first fully convening on Jan. 9.
Democrats won a Senate majority in the November election and the Democratic committee chairs were announced earlier this week. The Housing Committee, led by Little last session, will now be led by Sen. Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, who is new to that committee. A debate is expected this year over what to do about expiring rent regulations.
Little, a Republican from Queensbury, said she has applied to sit on the same committees she currently does: Housing, Education, Corrections, Tourism, Health, Energy, Finance and Rules. She also wants to become the ranking member — essentially the vice-chair, from the minority party — on the Education Committee, as she is a retired teacher.
Little said she is reviewing the legislation she is trying to pass, reapplying for the committees and gearing up for work in a Democratic-led state Senate.
Little said she does not expect the change of party power to have impacts on local bills for the North Country, as they are usually non-partisan. However, statewide bills that liberal legislators have been pitching for years now will have an advantage when they come to the floor for a vote.
At the end of the 2018 session, the two parties were split exactly in half, each holding 31 of the state Senate’s 63 seats. One seat was held by District 17’s Simcha Felder, who ran as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans.
In the 2018 election, Democratic candidates flipped eight Republican districts and now hold 39 seats to the Republicans’ 23.
The Child Victims Act is one bill that has been passed by the state Assembly many times but always gets rejected by the state Senate. The act would raise the age an adolescent victim of sexual assault could criminally prosecute their attacker from 23 to 28 and raise the age to 50 for civil prosecution, plus offer a one-year suspension of the statute of limitations. Little said she voted against a version of the bill in 2016 because it was an amendment to a human trafficking hotline bill and she deemed it unrelated.
Little said she would support the act if it comes to a vote this session. She wants to add a provision that victims should get 90 percent of whatever financial award is decided on, as the cases would not include criminal charges.
The act also includes a “look back” provision, which allows a one-year window for past victims to file lawsuits. While others have voiced concerns that this sort of thing would cause a flood of suits against organizations like the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts, Little said “other states have managed to get through it.”
She said it is important to pass the act for the benefit of victims.
A controversial bill that would require handgun permit seekers to turn their social-media passwords over to an investigating officer, who would look for hateful slurs and terroristic threats, may make its way into the state Senate discourse this session. Little said the bill, introduced by state Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, targets people with legitimate gun permits while failing to address the real problem.
“I don’t think that’s a good bill. Who are you hurting other than the legal gun owners?” Little said. “Going further into their personal life because they own a gun just does not seem right. It’s the illegal gun owners, the people who shouldn’t be having guns … that we need to go after.
“There’s like 120 of the 213 legislators that are from New York City and Long Island, and they do have a different take on guns,” Little said. “We are going to have to work hard to make sure that they understand the upstate issues, the legitimate gun owner issues.”
Little said she has not yet received a response to a letter she and five other legislators sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September, which requested the state to stop housing sex offenders with other people receiving services from the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.
However, she said she recently has heard that OPWDD is trying to come up with a plan for where to house the sex offenders separately.
“You cannot put a Level 2, Level 3 sex offender into a group home,” Little said. “It’s a vulnerable population there.”
She said sometimes people released from jail are moved into OPWDD housing when it is not necessary.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, and several other New York Republican congresspeople recently wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, asking him to investigate the state Justice Center, which investigates OPWDD and other state agencies. Little, however, said she thinks the Justice Center does a good job.
While the letter alleges that the state is “neglecting to investigate suspicious deaths of patients,” Little said that the Justice Center reports all kinds of incidents to the Department of Justice and local police: some true, some not.
She also said many of the problems OPWDD faces are caused by understaffing.
“It’s hard for them to get employees. The pay scale isn’t great. The hours are difficult. You can’t call in sick,” Little said. “We have to constantly try to see that the direct care workers get a cost-of-living increase.”
Little and the rest of New York’s 213 lawmakers are getting a pay raise of their own over the next three years, the first increase in 20 years, and one that will make them the highest-paid state lawmakers in the country. Little said the raise was reasonable, given that in the past 20 years the cost of living has gone up, especially for New York City and Long Island legislators.
The 63 percent pay increase came with some caveats, such as a cap on the income members can earn outside state government, set at 15 percent of their base public salary and starting in 2020.
The state compensation committee also sharply limited stipends, known as “lulus,” ranging from $9,000 to $41,500 a year, which were given to members in leadership positions.
Little said she does not agree with limiting state senators’ outside income because it will limit professionals’ ability to serve in elected office. She said members should be transparent about where they are working and make themselves available for legislation, but she said not having limits on outside incomes let the Legislature be populated with doctors, teachers and construction business owners.
“It’s a legislative body that is … elected to make laws, and they apparently don’t want lawyers to be a part of it unless they are retired,” Little said.
Little supported medical marijuana when it was passed in 2014 but is not sure about total recreational legalization, wondering about its abuse potential.
“I have some concerns, and those concerns come from people that I talk to who are involved in the drug rehabilitation programs and law enforcement,” Little said. “Many of the people who are involved in the opiate crisis will say that it is a gateway.”
Little also said she wants a way to determine when someone is high while driving. Currently there is not and effective test. She said as New York becomes surrounded by states and countries legalizing recreational marijuana — such as Canada, Massachusetts and Vermont — she expects a great amount of debate over it in the state Senate.
Universal health care will most likely be discussed in the Legislature this session, and Little still says she would prefer to have Medicare-for-all on a federal level.
“I don’t know how one state can do it,” Little said.
She mentioned that Vermont had passed a framework to enact single-payer health care but backed down from going through with it because it would cost the taxpayers too much.
Little also hopes to pass several mortgage tax extenders quickly, as they were held over from last session.