Op Ed: Special Interests’ Grip on the NY State Legislature

by Larry Kilian and Mary Jane Kilian
Co-chairs, Issues and Resolutions Committee
Yorktown Democratic Committee

Are we paying attention to how the New York State Senate works? All too often it represents special interests and not us. Case in point: using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. In an attempt to improve our schools, New York State started using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. There is now a consensus of opinion that that was a very bad idea. Two years ago, the NY State Education Department put a 3-year moratorium on the practice because of concerns about its validity.

On May 2, 2018, the NY State Assembly, by a vote of 133 to 1, passed a bill (A10475) to remove test scores from teacher evaluations. In support of this bi-partisan effort, a similar bill (S08301) was introduced in the NY State Senate with the support of 54 co-sponsors (only 32 votes are needed to pass a bill in the senate). Problem solved? No. Enter special interests.

In New York, the for-profit charter school industry has spent millions of dollars to influence state legislators and oppose legislative candidates who do not support their for-profit industry. Why should we care? Charter schools are funded with public money, taking much needed dollars away from our public schools.

The Republican leadership in the State Senate never brought this bill—with 54 co-sponsors—up for a vote. Instead, they introduced and passed a bill (S8992) with the support of our senator, Terrence Murphy (SD40), which included an increase in the number of charter schools. It also weakened the requirement for non-public schools with extended day programs to provide instruction equivalent to public school instruction—a position favored by Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat who votes with the Republicans to give them a one vote margin to control the legislative agenda of the Senate. The result: the law requiring the use of test scores to evaluate teachers is still on the books—problem not solved because of special interests.

Another example: gun violence. In the wake of yet another horrific school shooting, in March 2018, the State Assembly—with bi-partisan support—passed a bill (A089768), 115 to 20, which would allow a judge in cases of extreme risk to remove guns from dangerous persons even if they were not yet charged with a crime. Inexplicably, our Assemblyman, Kevin Byrne (AD94), voted against this bill. A similar bill (S07133A) was introduced in the Senate with 30 co-sponsors—with 32 votes need to pass. Enter special interests.

Tom King, the president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and NRA board member, opposed the legislation. It was never brought to a vote in the NY Senate. The result: nothing done because of special interests. If our Republican representatives had asked us what we thought, we bet they would have found that even a majority of gun owners wanted them to pass this bill to protect our children from school shootings and families from domestic violence. Special interests prevented the measure from coming up for a vote—State Senators can block measures without making their position public. We need to know. This needs to change!

Special interests have the right to spend millions of dollars to contribute to candidates’ campaigns and oppose those candidates who fight against them. We, the people, have a right to judge whether our representatives are representing us or special interest money.

In both cases described above, there was broad, bi-partisan support for a bill in the Assembly and no vote in the Senate. Take the time to find out what your representatives are doing in Albany. That’s harder than it used to be. For, example, local newspapers typically do not cover how our representatives vote, their positions even on important issues, and which special interest groups are giving them money. Are our representatives accepting contributions from special interests such as the charter school industry, public utilities regulated by the state or businesses working on the gas pipeline?

Vedat Gashi, NY State Assembly candidate (AD94) and Pete Harckham, NY State Senate candidate (SD40) have told us that they will represent us and not special interests. Let’s pay attention and work together to change Albany so it works in our interest.