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Busy day at Capitol features governor's budget and transgender rights

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

The New York State legislature for the first time, granted civil rights to transgender New Yorkers.  Governor Andrew Cuomo also released his $175 billion budget plan, on a busy day at the State Capitol.

Senate sponsor Brad Hoylman got a bit emotional on the Senate floor when he spoke about the provisions of a measure that will add ‘gender identity” and  “gender expression”  as a protected class in the state’s human rights laws, outlawing discrimination in employment, and housing.

“All of these New Yorkers have been waiting so long,” said Hoylman. “They’ve been waiting too long. But we’re going to fix that today.”

The bill also adds gender identity to the categories protected in the state’s hate crimes law, adding additional penalties if a crime against a transgender person is determined to be bias-motivated.

Hoylman says transgender New Yorkers, who offered comments on the Senator’s web site say they’ve been turned down for medical exams, denied being served at restaurants, and have even had issues with using public bathrooms.

“59% had avoided using public restrooms out of fear of being confronted,” said Hoylman. “That’s the reality for transgender and gender non conforming people in our society.”

Teri Wilhelm, a transgender woman, works on behalf of gay, lesbian and transgender teenagers in the state’s school systems. She says the new law brings her tremendous relief, that she now has a tool to fight the discrimination she fears in her daily life.  

“Just fear of going to the grocery store, sometimes, that’s a little bit too much,” said Wilhelm.

Wilhelm says she received her teaching certificate in 2008 but has turned down for every teaching job she’s ever applied for.

“You might get interviewed but you’ll never get past(that point),” she said.

The measure passed 42 to 19, with all of the negative votes coming from Republicans. No GOP Senators spoke on the floor.

The legislature also moved to ban conversion therapy, where gay lesbian and transgendered people undergo treatments designed to talk them out of their sexual or gender identification.

It was also approved in the state Assembly and now awaits the governor’s signature.

The legislature planned to vote on the historic legislation before Governor Cuomo announced that he would present his budget address two weeks early.

Cuomo, in a theater in the state Capitol complex, offered more details of his plan to legalize recreational marijuana for adults aged 21 years and over. And Cuomo says he’ll look at directing some of the estimated $300 million dollars in revenues imposed on the production, distribution, and sale of the drug to communities that have been harmed by the decades' long prohibition of cannabis.

“Let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit,” Cuomo said.

Counties and local government would be able to prohibit marijuana retail stores if they want.  

Cuomo is setting off a potential fight over school aid. He is proposing a one billion dollar increase, in school aide, around half of what is recommended by the State Board of Regents, and he wants to revamp the school aid formula. Cuomo says funding inequality is not about a lack of aid given to the state’s poorest districts. He says, rather, it’s the districts themselves that are not distributing the money properly.

“The additional need has to go to the poorer school and the poorer student,” Cuomo said.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and state Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, in a joint statement, say they are “extremely alarmed” with the governor’s proposal to include just $338 million dollars in Foundation Aid, which is directed towards the state’s neediest schools. They say the proposal “falls far short of what schools need to achieve equity, or even keep pace with inflation and demographic changes”. 

Democratic lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, were positive about the governor’s overall budget message, but say they will work to increase school aid in the final budget.   

“We always like to see as much education funding as possible,” Heastie said. “Knowing our conference, we’re going to want to see more spending.”

Senate Deputy Minority Leader Joe Griffo, a Republican who also supports more money for schools, says it seems like Cuomo is blaming the school districts for problems created by the state.

“It appeared that way,” said Griffo, who said he believes in local control of schools districts. “We should be looking to the districts to get their guidance and their information as to what they believe is necessary and essential to get the job done to educate the children.”

Cuomo says the state faces a $3 billion dollar budget gap, which he blames on decreased tax collections due to federal changes to the tax code. And the governor also wants to ban plastic shopping bags, and institute congestion pricing below 60th street in Manhattan to help fund public transit.

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