After a contentious redistricting process and an election notable mostly for its lack of contention, Monroe County voters sent the same crew of state senators and assembly members back to Albany. No incumbent state legislator from the area lost his or her job, despite widespread frustration over the lack of progress our representatives have made on a host of social issues and development projects, and their inability to pass the state budget on time.
Asked about their legislative priorities for next year, most local lawmakers didn't even mention such issues as raising the minimum wage, passing legal protections for gays and lesbians, or reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Getting projects like a proposed juvenile justice center, downtown performing art center, or soccer stadium off the ground were also off most legislators' radar.
"Because of the outcome of the election and the state's fiscal situation, I expect I'll be spending a lot of time playing defense," says Assemblywoman Susan John, who won the only close race in this year's election, beating a Republican opponent.
She's referring to the fact voters reelected Republican Governor George Pataki, and the fact that under Pataki's leadership, the state has found itself facing a budget deficit that could reach $10 billion next year.
John's fearful that, like Monroe County Executive Jack Doyle, Pataki will try to balance the budget at the expense of children and the poor. "Jack Doyle's already gone after the children here," John says. "I don't want Governor Pataki to follow that example."
John's priorities for next year's legislative session include several bills aimed at the problem of lead poisoning. Among them is a measure to test children for lead poisoning more often, in part to gain a better understanding of the link between lead poisoning and the need for special education in schools. Another measure seeks to give the state the right to withhold rent payments to landlords who own buildings containing both lead paint and young children.
Forcing out-of-state contractors who employ out-of-state workers for jobs in New York to adhere to the state's workers' comp laws is also high on John's list, as is making emergency contraception available in hospital emergency rooms.
Assessing the prospects of passing such legislation, John says, "the lead poisoning ones will be difficult, because of the potential for [testing] to have a monetary cost. I hope I'm wrong about that."
"The state's fiscal situation makes reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws more difficult," John adds. "Once we adopt the reforms, we'll save money by directing it into treatment and less into the jail system. But in order to get there, we have to spend some money first. That's going be hard to do."
"The top priority has to be trying to meet the challenges imposed by the state's finances," says Assemblyman Joe Morelle. "And trying to ensure we keep our budget balanced while we make sure we can find the resources to fund our education and health-care needs."
Morelle, a Democratic incumbent who won easily over an all-but-nonexistent Republican challenger, says economic development initiatives "have been, and will continue to be, my priority." Those initiatives "mostly revolve around tourism and cultural issues," he says, but he also wants to find ways to attract high-tech businesses to the state.
It won't be easy. "My observation's been that in years in which neither the governor nor legislators are running, everything seems more complicated and difficult to achieve," Morelle says. "Compounding that with having to make some very difficult financial choices will make it a difficult year."
"Trying to get anything done to help the economy in Western New York and bring jobs here is going to be the number one goal," says Democratic Assemblyman David Koon of Perinton. Koon's priorities also include a measure to confiscate the cars and houses of drug dealers, passing legislation he's previously introduced to require background checks on commercial drivers transporting hazardous materials, and banning the polluting practice of incinerating trash in "burn barrels."
Koon says he'll also push to have police perform "bullet fingerprinting" on "suspicious weapons" they find that are unconnected to any particular crime.
"Certainly, one of the most important things to me is to make sure that I'm in a position to access resources for education, economic development, health care, and capital projects that the Rochester region needs and deserves," says Joe Robach, the former Assembly Democrat who switched parties and ran successfully for State Senate this year.
Robach's priorities involve "anything we can do to help the local economy via reducing red tape and regulation or liability issues that hurt businesses," he says. He also identifies the high costs of long-term health care and pharmaceutical prices as "issues we have to deal with" and says he'll "continue on my crusade to try to make reforms to the budget process, to make [budgetary decisions] more open and timely."
Democratic Assemblyman David Gantt, who coasted to another term with 81 percent of the vote this year, did not return calls seeking comment about his priorities.