April 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Rank-and-File Lawmakers Mostly Mum During Budget Debate

Since last week’s passage of the 2023-24 state budget, many details of the $229 billion spending plan have been slowly bubbling to the surface because state lawmakers were not able to digest the thousands of pages compiled into 10 bills that make up the document that will govern people’s lives for at least the next year.

Some freshmen lawmakers were so overwhelmed by the budget, they watched and didn’t say a word over the two-day marathon session to pass the bills.

Senator Jessica Scarcella-Spanton (D – West Brighton, North Shore, Staten Island), chief of operations for her predecessor Diane Savino, saw several budget processes but was never on the inside with the lawmaker as a staffer when the budget was discussed in the Democratic conference. That changed this year.

“I advocated for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge tolls for Staten Island residents would be covered at $5.50. That was a $7 million budget item,” Scarcella-Spanton told The Jewish Link. “We got $250,000 in additional funding for the Jewish Community Center in Coney Island, which is also part of my district.”

There were plenty of items in the budget Scarcella-Spanton was not happy with, but she held her nose when voting for the bills.

“The MTA plan to put speed cameras on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, on the highway, was a little bit dangerous because if you’re doing the speed that you would be driving on the highway and you have to slam on your brakes, I think there is a risk for accidents so we were able to get that proposal completely removed from the budget,” said Scarcella-Spanton.

The freshman lawmaker didn’t think the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater when it came to the governor’s housing plan.

“We do need more housing on Staten Island,” said Scarcella-Spanton. “Local residents should have input about any development that is coming into their neighborhoods. We were able to advocate to maintain local control of development on Staten Island. Which is a great thing.”

The controversial bail reform package that amended the discovery laws did not make it through to the final document, but money to help district attorneys gear up to hire more staff to reduce the backlog of cases was something she supported.

“I wasn’t pleased that discovery reform was taken out,” Scarcella-Spanton noted. “We got $50 million in the budget for the district attorneys so that they can implement the new discovery reforms in a more effective way by hiring staff and things of that nature. That will be divvied up among all five district attorneys so that doing their jobs of prosecuting crimes [is] made easier.”

Brooklyn (Kings County) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez echoed the sentiments of many prosecutors across the state. Gonzalez said his office processes 50,000 arrests per year and there is a two-year backlog which his office is contending with resolving.

“I was disappointed that some of the modest proposals to help reform our discovery laws weren’t acted on,” Gonzalez told The Jewish Link. “I believe in giving the defense all the materials they are entitled to, but it should be done in a way that also balances the rights of victims. Right now, we’re in a situation where the discovery laws are harming our ability to move forward in protecting victims of crime. We have to continue to work on that. The new law requires DAs to provide all discovery in 25 days in most cases, and if you can’t get it in on time for various reasons the case can get dismissed. We’ve been fighting to make sure that cases aren’t dismissed on technical grounds and that we have money to implement the laws the way the legislature wants to see the discovery process proceed. Justice delayed is justice denied and unfortunately accountability has to be swiftly certain so we need to make sure that caseloads are reduced so that we can hold people accountable quickly after they commit the crime.”

While Scarcella-Spanton, a Democrat, was disappointed with amendments to the discovery laws not in the budget and so were Senate Republicans.

“This is having a major impact because they [prosecutors] are seeing a lot of guilty people or people who we know committed those crimes being let out because they haven’t met the 25-day discovery threshold and timelines and they had to let people go. It’s unfortunate that serious offenders are going free,” said freshman Senator Bill Weber (R – Montebello, Rockland County). “I couldn’t vote for the overall budget because they [the Democrats] put poison pills. The education bill was loaded up with so much policy that I couldn’t in good conscience vote for it. I voted for the debt service bill, which allows for the running of the government.”

Weber, who remained silent through most of the two-day event, offered a last-minute hostile amendment to try to get more money into the budget for mental health facilities and the workers from the 4% increase to an 8.5% hike. The amendment was voted down by Democrats on a party-line vote.

“I made my point. I wanted to show my commitment to the disabled community and the mental hygiene community that we’re appreciative of the 4%, but the 4% doesn’t cut it. It is nowhere near what is needed. I thought we were in uniform agreement that we were going to come up with the 8.5%. Having that changed at the last second was very disappointing,” Weber said. “We know these agencies need 8.5% just to get to a baseline number where they can fully service the people that they need to service. I was disappointed that we couldn’t come to a number that is expected and needed in that community. It’s been a decade of neglect but we’ve seen the needs have gone up not only during COVID and post-COVID but we’re in a society where there are a lot of vulnerable people out there and we need to make a commitment as a state to do that.”

There were many aspects of the budget that directly helped the Jewish community.

“The final budget did not go nearly as far as was hoped, but will allow many schools and districts to serve free meals to all of their students, thanks to an allocation of $134 million,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Pinkus, director of yeshiva services for Agudath Israel. “Agudah is working to help Jewish schools participate in this expansion and will continue to push for a truly universal program. This expansion will encourage more schools to serve meals to their students, helping many struggling families and improving children’s ability to learn and function properly throughout the day.”

Another schools initiative focused on reimbursing schools for a host of services mandated by the state including testing, attendance taking, pupil data and immunization, among other tasks. Traditionally, the state has reimbursed schools the full amount of their claims.

“Mandated Services Aid (MSA), the largest source of funding for nonpublic schools, faced a potential drastic 8% cut and problematic language that would have placed the entire program into jeopardy. However, thanks to the advocacy efforts of Agudath Israel, its coalition partners and the staunch support of many legislators, the crisis was averted,” said Rabbi Baruch Rothman, director of institutional advancement at the Far Rockaway, Queens-based Yeshiva Darchei Torah. “The executive budget, first released in February, allocated just over $193 million for combined MSA and CAP (Comprehensive Attendance Program). This allocation had not been increased for the third consecutive year, despite being $17 million below what the State Education Department requested in order to fulfill anticipated claims.”

The budget bills passed mostly on party lines without lawmakers having a full grasp on what they were approving, but they trusted the staff and legislative leaders in guiding their vote.

By Marc Gronich

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