ALBANY, N.Y. — Despite protests from many Republicans over a provision regarding firearms, Rep. Tom Reed backed the House renewal of the Violence Against Women Act last week. In other updates, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton spoke with The Ithaca Voice about what she liked and disliked in New York’s budget this year, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand takes to the Senate floor to demand legislation to close the gender pay gap.

Rep. Tom Reed (23rd Congressional District)

Congressman Tom Reed addresses the crowd in Enfield at a town hall in 2018. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
Congressman Tom Reed addresses the crowd in Enfield at a town hall in 2018. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Last week, the House voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a law first authorized in 1994 to help domestic and sexual violence victims. Rep. Tom Reed was one of 33 Republicans to vote in favor of the bill which would extend protections for domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Many Republicans voted against the law, which was opposed by the NRA, because of a provision which would make it illegal for anyone convicted of misdemeanor charges of stalking or domestic abuse to buy or own firearms. Current law only prohibits owning a firearm after felony accounts of the same charges.

“We care about protecting every woman in America from domestic violence in all its forms,” Reed said in a press release. “We can help to prevent domestic abuse if we provide women and law enforcement the tools that they need to prevent these horrible acts of violence.”

Reed and 22 other Republicans also broke from party lines in favor of an amendment offered by California Democrat Maxine Waters. The amendment passed making a provision in the bill that would authorize grants for college campuses to expand services related to abuse and sexual assault. Prior to voting on the final passage of VAWA, Reed did vote in favor of a Republican-led motion to recommit, a procedural move that would have tanked the legislation. That maneuver failed.

The Violence Against Women Act has been renewed several times since it was first passed, but expired in 2018. It’s unclear how soon the Republican-held Senate may act on the House’s version of VAWA.

Reed missed three, mostly uncontroversial, votes on Monday evening in order to attend a meeting with the Problem Solvers Caucus and President Trump at the White House regarding last year’s passage of the bipartisan First Step Act. Reed’s Communications Director, Will Reinert told The Ithaca Voice that Reed would’ve voted in favor of all three measures had he been present. This is the first time this year that Reed has missed votes.

Democrats brought a symbolic resolution to the floor last week expressing the House’s disapprove of President Trump’s recent announcement that the administration would pose legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. Reed was one of eight Republicans to vote with Democrats on the measure.

The good and the disappointments – Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton looks back on state budget

“It had good things, but also significant disappointments,” Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton said reflecting on last week’s passage of the state budget in an interview with The Ithaca Voice last week. Here are some of her more detailed thoughts on this year’s “big ugly,” from Albany.

Barbara Lifton

Public Campaign Finance and Elections Funding

Earlier this year the Legislature passed several bills establishing early voting in New York State, but funding was not initially provided in that legislation. Provisions in the budget allocated those funds which would help local governments cover the costs of administering early voting and the associated costs like digital poll books which come with it.

“We did the early voting, same-day registration, early on things on voter registration. In order to do those things you have to have electronic poll books and there was a discussion about how that was going to happen, who was going to pay for that. I’m pleased that the state is putting in a significant chunk of money to help pay for that.”

The budget also set up a separate commission charged with putting forth a program for publicly funded state elections. The state has committed $100 million per year to the program which seeks to make running for office easier for less wealthy individuals.

While Lifton said she is happy the topic of publicly funded campaigns is being worked on, she isn’t in favor of doing so through a commission, arguing that it should be up to the Legislature to hammer out such a plan outside the budget process.

“Lots of things end up getting put in the budget now and I don’t think it’s a good thing,” Lifton said. “It doesn’t give enough time for consideration and even more importantly, we’re supposed to be a coequal branch. The Legislature and Governor are co-equal branches of government and the Governor shouldn’t have more power within the budget process.”

The commission’s recommendation will be considered law unless the legislature reconvenes in December to deny the plan. Lifton said she thinks that is unlikely.

Property Tax Cap

The budget makes a temporary cap permanent on raises in property taxes. This means municipalities and school districts will only be able to raise property taxes two percent each year without making a politically unfavorable vote to override.

Lifton said she is wary of property taxes, opting more in favor of a progressive statewide income tax. She supported extending the temporary property tax, but not making it permanent as was ultimately the case.

“Let’s not do this. Let’s have this discussion and, if we’re going to as we continue a tax cap, let’s talk about what’s the best thing to do rather than just capping local taxes,” Lifton said. “That’s fine, the property tax is out of control, I’m not opposed to dealing with that, but it would be much better if the state, instead of dealing with it this way, just a permanent cap, would pick up more of the cost of schools.”

Education Funding

Lifton and other education advocates in the Legislature were happy to see an increase in foundation aid for the state’s middle class and low-income school districts. She said that while the nearly $700 million increase is great, schools still haven’t recovered from cuts during the Recession.

“We’re still going to have to keep plugging along and work to try and fill in that gap,” she said.

Prison Closures

As part of the budget, the Gov. Cuomo has been permitted to close two state-run prisons. There still isn’t any indication which facilities could be on the chopping block. Legislators did get the Governor to agree to provide a 90-day notice to the community should the prison be set for closure.

“Ninety days notice to the community- I wish it were longer,” Lifton said. “It is a transition and adjustment for communities that have a prison, but that was the agreement in the end that it was a 90-day notice.”

While she welcomes the decreasing prison population that Gov. Cuomo claims is the root cause for closing the prisons, she said she does recognize the economic impact it could have on prison workers and the greater communities.

“I’d like to see funding in other areas where we have more job creation and kind of ‘happy’ areas. Let’s have more teachers and more social works and more therapists and less prison guards, how about that? Not there’s anything wrong – I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with prison guards. I think they’ve got a tough job and I think probably a lot of those guards would rather be on the other side trying to help people stay out of a prison rather than guarding a people in prison.”

Plastic Bag Ban

Perhaps one of the most noticeable policies in the budget is a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags. Lifton praised the provision, citing negative environmental impacts.

“We’re going to have to keep working on this issue. But those bags that are hanging in the trees and blowing all over and mucking up water treatment plants all over the state-we’re banning,” Lifton said.

Recreational Marijuana Legalization

One item that didn’t end up making it into the budget was recreational marijuana legalization. Lifton is a cosponsor of the Assembly bill that would legalize the drug for recreational purposes, but like many other legislators, she shied away from trying to perfect the legislation as part of the budget process.

“It ended up being a lot more discussion than maybe we realized going in.”

Governor’s Pay Increase

The budget included a pay increase for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

“No matter whether you’re happy with the Governor at any particular time or unhappy, no matter their party, it’s important to pay people that do work day-in and day-out,” Lifton said. “I’m sure days off are very rare for this governor or any governor.”

Republican State Senator Tom O’Mara didn’t respond to request for a phone interview. His Communications Director, Jim Meddleton, referred to the week prior’s release regarding O’Mara’s opinion of the budget. That release is included in last week’s breakdown of the state budget.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Senator Gillibrand is taking up the reins on a bill that Democrats pushed through the House last month aimed at ending the gender pay gap.

“We are still struggling to protect women from wage discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, workplace harassment, and an unfair minimum wage,” Gillibrand said on the Senate floor last week. “We are still struggling to ensure that women and their families have access to paid leave, and affordable childcare.”

The bill, as passed by the House, adds to the Equal Pay Act to remove obstacles making it more difficult for workers to discuss and negotiate pay. It would also give them the ability to file class action lawsuits against employers who’ve discriminated in pay.

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Last week Gillibrand also reintroduced a piece of legislation aimed at combating sexual assault on college campuses. She cosponsors the bipartisan bill with Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. The legislation would require educational institutions to appoint a specific Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, uniformly and publicly report data of incidents, and establish a clear working relationship with other campus entities and local law enforcement.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

Sen. Chuck Schumer moved to try and prevent Mitch McConnell from loosening Senate rules in order to rapidly increase the approval of President Trump’s district court judge nominees. Despite his efforts, the Senate still voted to change precedent, giving only two hours for debate on a nominee instead of the 30 hours that are currently allowed.

Two hours for a lifetime appointment is unacceptable,” Schumer said in an impassioned floor speech before the vote. “Two hours for a lifetime appointment with a huge influence on people’s lives is unacceptable. It’s ridiculous. It’s a mockery of how this institution should work.”

Schumer and Gillibrand voted with all Democrats against the change. The only Republican Senators to vote with them were Susan Collins of Maine and Mike Lee of Utah.

Vaughn Golden is a freelance radio and print reporter covering politics around the southern tier and central New York. He authors the weekly "Capitol Watch" watchdog report on Ithaca's representatives...