November 20, 2013
By Steven Wishnia
Increasing school aid, raising the minimum wage, and closing a loophole in the state’s marijuana-decriminalization law are among the items on the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus’s “Progressive Agenda,” presented Nov. 18 in a forum at Baruch College.
While the Legislature raised the minimum wage earlier this year, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said, the Senate watered the bill down and added tax breaks “for some of the worst actors.” “Even New Jersey has indexing and a better minimum wage,” said Assemblymember Keith Wright, noting that the Assembly version had indexed the minimum to inflation.
The forum, chaired by Assemblymember Karim Camara (D-Brooklyn), featured caucus members speaking on different aspects of the agenda, with guest appearances by Comptroller-elect Scott Stringer and the Rev. Al Sharpton. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew called it “a very smart thing” for the caucus to present its agenda “without any ambiguity.”
On education, Assemblymember Michaelle Solages (D-Nassau) said the caucus’ agenda could be summed up in two words: “more” and “better.” Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx) urged the Legislature to pass a tax surcharge on income over $500,000 to fund Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s plans to expand all-day pre-kindergarten. Marcos Crespo (D-Bronx) called for restoring the $2.7 billion cut from the state’s education budget in 2010 and 2011, as well as distributing funds to poorer school districts in the way indicated by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision in 2006. Francisco Moya (D-Queens) noted that the Assembly had passed a state version of the DREAM Act, making undocumented immigrants eligible for college-tuition assistance, and had appropriated $25 million to pay for it.
Assemblymember Walter T. Mosley (D-Brooklyn) advocated reducing the penalty for marijuana possession “in public view” from a misdemeanor to a $100 fine, closing a loophole in the state’s 1977 decriminalization law that has combined with stop-and-frisk policing to produce more than 400,000 pot arrests during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure. Mosley called the public-view loophole and stop-and-frisk “the cornerstones to a prison-industrial complex.” The Assembly passed a similar bill this year, but it never got a vote in the Senate.
Participants were optimistic about the flow of political sentiment. Camara opened the meeting by saying de Blasio’s landslide victory showed “the people have risen” to say that “government can and should do anything in its power to help the people who need it most.” Yet for these proposals to become law, they have to make it through the Senate, which is controlled by an alliance between the Republican minority and the Independent Democratic Conference faction.
“The important thing is that none of these priorities are new,” Rivera said before the meeting. “All of these would have become law if it hadn’t been for the Republican-led coalition.” That, he said, means we have to “fight to make sure we have a Democratic majority in the Senate in 2014.”