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Tightening the Belt

New York state legislators struggle to balance a budget as the Assembly passes tax relief for some New Yorkers

In a special session this week, the New York State Assembly agreed to cut $400 to 500 million from this years’ state budget, falling short of Gov. David Paterson’s goal of at least $600 million. This cut is part of Paterson’s plan to close the $6.4 billion deficit the state faces next year. Additional reductions over the next two fiscal years are estimated to be in the $1 billion range.

The Assembly approved the 6-percent across-the-board cuts and, as of press time, the Senate was scheduled to vote on the cuts late Wednesday.

Some of the areas affected by the cuts include homeless shelters, hospitals, mental-health services, nursing homes, “pork-barrel” spending, Medicaid reimbursements in hospitals, library aid, and a delay in the statewide wireless network. Although public schools will not be affected by the cuts, the City University of New York system is slated to lose an estimated $50 million.

While the Assembly and Senate met, much of the time behind closed doors, several hundred disability-rights advocates voiced their distress in the Hall of Flags inside the Capitol building. Most of the advocates, some wearing yellow flyers with red targets on their backs, chanted, “Don’t target us!” throughout much of the day; their mantra echoed through the halls of the Capitol.

Some of the protestors, a few in wheelchairs, managed to block the governor’s chambers during the protest. Much of the protest comprised members of the Western New York Independent Living Project. Advocates with the organization are concerned that a 6-percent cut to independent living centers will force people with disabilities into costly nursing homes and other institutions.

The Assembly also passed a “circuit-breaker” bill in a 118 to 24 vote late Tuesday. This law would give tax relief to those making less than $250,000 a year, said Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari (D-Cohoes), during debate. The bill essentially would be funded by New York millionaires, raising income taxes on the 77,000 New Yorkers—only 35,000 of who actually live in New York—making $1 million dollars or more annually, Canestrari said.

This legislation is aimed at helping middle-class New Yorkers, saving them an estimated $1.7 billion in property tax relief, said Canestrari.

Although the bill easily passed in the Assembly, it’s extremely unlikely the Republican-led Senate will consider it. The Senate passed a different bill earlier this month, during another special session called by Paterson to deal with the state’s worsening fiscal crisis. The bill—passed by the Senate and proposed by Paterson—would put a 4-percent annual limit on property tax increases.

Although she supported the millionaire’s tax, Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun (R-Blooming Grove) urged the Assembly to “please go back and look.” Calhoun said she believes the tax would be more effective in conjunction with the Senate’s 4-percent tax cap.

—Chris Mueller


What a Week

Fun With Justice

The first U.S. war crimes trial in half a century came to an end this week with mixed results. The man on trial, Osama bin Laden’s former driver Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was found guilty of supporting Al Qaeda but found not guilty of conspiring with bin Laden to commit terrorist attacks. Hamdan’s trial was the first in what will likely be a series of military trials of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Although he was partially acquitted, Hamdan still faces up to life in prison. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the Bush administration for starting the military trials with “a marginal figure” such as Hamdan.

Hilton’s Revenge

Paris Hilton returned fire on the presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain this week by releasing a YouTube video mocking a McCain campaign TV spot. Last week the McCain campaign launched an ad that compared Barack Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Not only did McCain’s ad anger Hilton’s parents, who are large donors to the McCain campaign, it garnered a video response from Paris herself. The video features—in mock campaign-spot style—Hilton lounging in a pool chair, offering her solution to the energy crisis. And frighteningly, taking herself seriously for two minutes before gleefully spouting the line, “I’ll see you at the debate, bitches!”

Hootenany!

In perhaps one of the most off-color campaign stops ever, John McCain paid a visit to the Sturgis Buffalo Chip biker gathering in North Dakota this week. The event, which featured Foghat, Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Hawaiian Tropic girls, and women’s oil wrestling, also plays host to the “Miss Buffalo Chip” pageant. While addressing the rowdy crowd, McCain suggested he might have a late entrant. “You know I was looking at the Sturgis schedule and saw that you have a beauty pageant and so I urged Cindy to compete,” announced McCain to catcalls and hoots. “I told her with a little luck she could be the only woman ever to serve as the first lady and Ms. Buffalo Chip!”



Employer Unrest

The Employee Free Choice Act has large companies like Wal-Mart trying to influence the next election

On Feb. 10, 2005, in Jonquiere, Quebec, a Wal-Mart was closed for good. And it just so happened that the closure occurred days before an arbitrator was set to impose a union contract at the Wal-Mart store.

This month, a Wal-Mart in Gatineau, Quebec, became the first Wal-Mart in North America to become unionized. Only eight of the store’s employees, technicians who install tires, fill propane tanks, and change oil were able to join the union. The other 200 employees were not affected.

The technicians won more vacation time and periodic increases to their salary. Wal-Mart representatives have stated they are “reviewing the implications” of the unionization and have not decided whether or not to close the store. Meanwhile, this week Wal-Mart has come under fire in the United States for what critics are calling anti-labor electioneering.

The Wall Street Journal reported that supervisors and managers in Wal-Mart stores around the country are lecturing employees about the dangers of a Democratic win during the November presidential election.

What is so frightening for Wal-Mart higher-ups about the possibility of Sen. Barack Obama wining the presidency? Obama has promised to make the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act one of his priorities. Obama was a co-sponsor of the bill, which would make it easier for unions to organize and deliver stricter penalties for companies who interfere with unionization. The bill was filibustered in the Senate and faced almost certain veto if it reached the White House. Eventually, it was tabled.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain is staunchly opposed to the bill.

The EFCA likely would streamline and hasten the ability of workers to unionize by doing away with the mandatory secret ballot and replacing it with a system by which employees could unionize if 50 percent of workers simply signed a card. Normally, secret-ballot elections are preceded with large pressure campaigns by labor unions and the employers. Under the EFCA, an employee could make up their mind at anytime and just sign the card.

According to the Journal, Wal-Mart human-resource managers, who have been trained by Wal-Mart on the negative implications on the bill, have been leading labor meetings at individual Wal-Mart stores.

Labor unions have responded to the report by demanding the Federal Election Commission look into what they call Wal-Mart’s “electioneering.” Representatives of Wal-Mart have said that labor meetings have been taking place but insist that they are not “telling associates how to vote.”

However, a Wal-Mart employee told the Journal: “The meeting leader said, ‘I am not telling you how to vote, but if the Democrats win, this bill will pass and you won’t have a vote on whether you want a union.”

—David King


And the Challenger . . .

Republican Roger Cusick looks to rematch Soares in the race for Albany County district attorney

Roger Cusick submitted 2,157 signatures to the Albany Board of Elections this week, almost guaranteeing he will be on the November ballot on the Integrity Party line, running as the sole challenger of Albany County District Attorney David Soares.

Cusick entered the race on the third-party line because the Albany GOP did not nominate a candidate to run by the July deadline. Some have characterized Cusick’s run as “reluctant.” Cusick disagreed. “It was not about reluctance, but really, the Democratic organization is kind of tough to run against. The Republicans took a pass and a group of people approached me about an independent candidacy. I said, ‘I will do it if you get the signatures,’ and you know, I participated in it and we managed to do it.”

Cusick ran on the Republican line four years ago when Soares successfully defeated incumbent Paul Clyne in the Democratic primary. Clyne stayed in the race as a third-party candidate until the last minute when he threw his support behind Cusick.

“It will be one-on-one this time,” said Cusick. “He comes in with a certain manifest advantage of incumbency combined with that of the Democratic party. On the other hand, I felt the only reason I lost last time is we ran out of time.”

Cusick said he feels he will be on more even footing now that Soares has served as district attorney for four years. “He managed to slip through the system because no one knew anything about him,” said Cusick. “Now we have had four years of experience with him, and a lot of what we predicted came true. I will run on his record, definitely.”

—David King


Daunting Task

Albany’s gun violence task force public forum sparks passionate commentary and calls for unity

With a November deadline looming to present their recommendations to Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, the Albany Gun Violence Task Force met at the Philip Schuyler Achievement Academy on Clinton Avenue Tuesday to receive input from the public.

A consensus seemed to build among a number of public commenters that violence will solve violence. Speaker after speaker complained that, as parents, they are limited because they are quickly accused of abuse if they employ corporal punishment.

That message was just the highlight of a public-comment period that was a mix of self-promotion, performance art, finger pointing, and genuine concern that highlighted the confusion, anger, and hopelessness that surrounds the issue of gun violence in Albany.

A number of task force members were not present for the public-comment period. Around 80 people attended the forum.

The members of the community who did not focus on the usefulness of corporal punishment made some stark points.

Shawntell Mills, who works in the field of child welfare, told the audience that “child welfare is not your enemy.” Mills told the crowd that the workers who ensure that children are not being abused also make sure parents do not do drugs around the children and try to keep the children from winding up on the street.

Common Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4), who serves as the liaison between the task force and the council, told Metroland, “I know that there is a widely held belief in the black community that restrictions on corporal punishment have affected the capacity of families to establish disciplinary boundaries for their children. My perspective is that it is absolutely not necessary to rely upon physical discipline to get children on the right path.”

Yusuf Burgess and Ron “Cook” Barrett, who run youth activities in the city designed to keep children out of gangs, seemed almost lost in a sea of discontentment spilling from the rest of the commenters. Barrett clearly was exasperated that so many people have found the time to speak out about the issue, but do not come out and volunteer to help at his programs. He called them “spectators” and challenged instead of “writing editorials” that people volunteer.

Another speaker, who said he worked with Barrett, said the meeting should be called “getting funny with the money” because he felt spending money on gun-buyback programs is a waste. He said real gang members would not turn in their weapons and that programs like Barrett’s who help give kids a place to go need more funding. He then told the crowd that he needed to be paid to “volunteer” his time.

Burgess commented that he found it troubling that a representative from the school district was not on the task force. He added that Albany children are left to their own devices after school gets out.

Albany Common Council President Shawn Morris agreed with Burgess and called the lack of a school board member on the task force an “oversight” on the part of the council. Morris also pointed out that she and other members of the council and the community are working with a technical-assistance grant from the National League of Cities to compile a functioning list of after-school and off-time activities that currently exist in Albany, and to make those activities more available.

Smith said that although community members and task-force members all have separate ideas about how to approach Albany’s gun-violence problem, she is confident that the task force will present a coherent and thorough recommendation to the mayor. And with only six task-force meetings left, it has yet to be decided if there will be another public forum.

If Smith gets her way there would be plenty of chance for the public to speak on the issue in the future. “One thing I hope will come out of the final report;” said Smith, “is that there will be an ongoing entity. A city-sponsored entity that continues to focus on the ongoing issue of gun violence. I think there should be an exploration of making it regional.”

Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), who originally championed the idea of a gun- violence task force, said that he has been approached by some members of the task force who inquired about extending the time they had to make a recommendation. “I think if they feel they need some more time, I wouldn’t mind extending it,” said Calsolaro. “Hopefully they can finish the task by November, but I don’t think the task force should be permanent. However, I did ask that one of the recommendations be that we create a regional gun-violence task force.”

—David King



Loose Ends

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