As part of my community engagement platform, I promised to provide a regular weekly update on what’s happening up in Albany. This is an update from weeks thirteen and fourteen.

You can always email me directly at gounardes@nysenate.gov if you have any other questions, ideas, or want more information about what’s happening in Albany or the district.

*Session Week 13*

Committee Meetings

There were no committee meetings this week as we worked on finalizing the budget.

Session

Remember that you can watch sessions live on the NYS Senate website and follow along with session proceedings on the official NY Senate Twitter. Last week we passed 20 bills.

  • In light of the recent hate crimes throughout the country, S70 which I am a cosponsor on, requires the state to collect and report data on certain demographics of victims and alleged perpetrators. It will allow the state to provide adequate victim support services and additional programming to decrease the likelihood of hate crimes occurring.

Other Noteworthy Bills

  • S28 requires certain state agencies to make information for small businesses accessible on their website, along with feedback and assistance from the agency.
  • S1416 certifies “recovery living residences” for people recovering from substance abuse disorders .
  • S1453B Prevents certains services of residential and small business from being disconnected due to non-payment of overdue charges.

You can see all the bills the Senate has passed so far this year here.

A Note on the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act

Last week, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) was signed by the Governor, legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults. After weighing the costs and benefits of the bill, and negotiations that lasted for several years, I voted in favor of the MRTA. Given the reality that complete prohibition has failed and that many people use marijuana frequently, New Yorkers will be better served by a regulated market where products are laboratory-tested, safe, measured, and labeled.

What the bill does:

  • The bill will legalize the possession, purchase and use of marijuana for anyone over the age of 21.
  • New York will allow a variety of different cannabis licenses, with different ones available for growers, processors, distributors and retail sites.
  • Create thousands of jobs and bring in much needed, sustainable revenue to NYS. The projected marijuana tax revenue once the bill is implemented — estimated to be $350 million a year — will be split between grants for communities disproportionately affected by prior drug laws; schools and education; and toward drug treatment and education programs.

Important Vehicle & Traffic Law Changes:

Like many of my constituents, I shared a concern for how legalization of recreational marijuana would affect traffic safety. The MRTA took these concerns seriously and incorporated many solutions, including:

  • The MRTA allows the odor of cannabis to be used as reason to suspect that a driver is intoxicated, but prohibits using odor as a justification for searching a car for contraband.
  • The bill provides funding for the State to develop accurate saliva tests, with the goal of adopting an accurate saliva test that can detect the recent use of marijuana, which can be used in these situations.
  • This bill will actually provide law enforcement with more ways to identify substance-impaired drivers, including additional training, more Drug Recognition Experts able to identify the mental and physical markers of different substances’ impact on drivers, and a pathway to State approval for a saliva test to positively identify recent marijuana use.

Legalizing and regulating marijuana will create a substantial source of new revenue that can be reinvested productively and will free up law enforcement resources for better use on other priorities. Marijuana is significantly less harmful than other banned substances and, for that matter, legal substances like alcohol. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this new law, please contact our office directly for more information at 718–238–6044.

*Session Week 14*

Budget

This week, we were focused entirely on passing the FY2022 budget. I have outlined some of the key components of the budget:

Higher Education

  • As the lead sponsor of the New Deal for CUNY, I’m incredibly proud to say that this year’s budget is arguably the best higher education budget in a decade or more. The enacted budget makes an historic investment in CUNY and SUNY by rejecting the Governor’s proposed $75 million budget cuts and instead investing an additional $56 million for a net increase of $131 million for CUNY and SUNY. The budget also increases the maximum award under the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) by $500 to assist the neediest students in the state. This is the largest increase to TAP since 2000, and the first time it has been increased since 2014. The budget also institutes a three-year tuition freeze, increases base aid for community colleges across the state, and for the first time ever, dedicates $2 million for mental health services and services for students with disabilities, a principal goal of the New Deal for CUNY. CUNY will also receive an additional $100 million in capital funds for new expansion initiatives. These investments will help transform CUNY into the nation’s premier public urban university.

K-12 Education

  • The enacted budget will increase Foundation Aid by $1.3 billion, and finally fulfill the state’s obligation to fully fund New York City’s public schools within the next three years, an historic achievement. With public schools in Senate District 22 owed $43 million in state aid, this budget will ensure that for the first time in a generation, schools in southern Brooklyn will be fully funded with state aid. Additionally, the enacted budget invests $40 million in grants to non-public schools for STEM programs, an important source of support for many eligible schools across southern Brooklyn.

Homeowner relief

  • The budget also includes a first-of-its-kind property tax circuit breaker to help lower- and middle-income homeowners from the high burden of property taxes. This proposal, modeled after legislation I introduced last year, will deliver $440 million in property tax relief for 1.3 million New York households earning under $250,000 based on the proportion of their income spent paying property taxes. The income tax credits will range between $250 and $350, which will give homeowners much needed relief during a time of such economic uncertainty. The state also commits to meaningful change for those grappling with housing instability by providing an additional $600 million in homeowner assistance, including a $60 million commitment over three years for the Homeowner Protection Program.

Tenant relief

  • With an infusion of federal rental relief assistance, the enacted budget allocates $2.4 billion for the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program. This program will help tenants facing financial hardship due to COVID-19 pay up to 12 months of rent and utility arrears, with an additional three months’ prospective months of rent, and a year of eviction protection. The successful inclusion of this program in the state budget will ensure that tenants can remain in their homes while landlords also receive their due rent. Tenants and landlords will be eligible to apply for this relief program once it becomes finalized and operational.

Small Businesses

  • To help small businesses recover from the pandemic, the state budget provides a record investment in excess of $1 billion for New York’s small businesses to supplement existing federal aid. With $800 million in small business recovery grants, $200 million in tax credits, and a $35 million restaurant return-to-work tax credit targeted at establishments that were shut down in color-coded zones, this funding ensures that businesses hardest hit by the pandemic can get back on their feet. The investments made in this budget will support job growth and economic development across southern Brooklyn and across New York State.

Early Retirement Incentive (ERI) for New York City employees

  • This year’s budget includes my proposal to offer New York City municipal workers an early retirement incentive as a way to help New York City balance its finances in the years ahead. Under my legislation, which still needs final sign-off by the City Council and the Mayor, employees in eligible service titles can earn one month of additional service time for every year employed by the city, up to a maximum of three years. Additionally, employees aged 55 or older with at least 25 years of service may be eligible for early retirement without incurring an early age penalty. The City of New York will determine which employees are eligible.

Revenue

  • As part of the enacted budget, middle-class families will see a decrease in their state income tax rate and ultra-wealthy New Yorkers and large corporations will be paying their fair share to help address the fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. With these new revenue opportunities, crucial services such as small business assistance and infrastructure will be funded. State taxes will not be raised for those earning less than $1 million a year. The budget increases the current top state personal income tax rate of 8.82% to 9.85% for individual filers who make over $1 million and joint filers who make over $2 million; and establishes two new brackets at a rate of 10.30% for those whose income is between $5 million and $25 million and 10.90% for those whose income is over 25 million.

Excluded Worker Fund

  • The budget created an Excluded Workers Fund to provide one-time unemployment benefits to workers who were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic but were not eligible for Unemployment Insurance or other federal benefits. This includes people who have working papers and file taxes, but are still excluded from unemployment benefits. This is intended to help people who pay into our tax system and have not gotten any help in return. The benefits program will be administered by the Department of Labor. Applicants must be able to verify their identity, residency, and work related eligibility.

Other Key Budget Investments

In addition, the enacted budget rejects all of the Governor’s proposed healthcare cuts, increases state support for human services providers, including entities serving adults with disabilities, provides $3 million for refugee resettlement agencies, fully funds the Nourish New York initiative at $50 million, which will allow New York’s emergency food providers to purchase surplus products from New York farmers and deliver them to those in need, and provides $40 million to support the Arts and Cultural Organization Recovery Grant Program.

You can read more about what is included in the budget, and related bills here.

The Senate is not in session for the next two weeks, so I’ll be seeing you around the neighborhood. Legislative activity resumes the week of April 19th.

Thanks for reading! As always, you can email me directly at gounardes@nysenate.gov or call my office as 718–238–6044.

NYS Senator, District 22.