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State Sen. Jim Gaughran

Democrat challenger Jim Gaughran upset incumbent Carl Marcellino by winning the race for New York state's 5th Senate District. Photo by Alex Petroski

New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) and the Senate Democratic majority passed a package of legislation that will expand veterans’ benefits and ease transition back to civilian life. These bills propose to provide veterans with a toll-free hotline on services and benefits, broaden property tax exemptions, make voting more accessible for military voters and implement additional employment benefits and academic credits. Passage of these bills comes in honor of the annual Fort Drum Day, which welcomes service members to the state Senate chamber. 

 “These bills affirm our commitment to providing military service members full resources and opportunities that they have earned,” Gaughran said. “It is our duty to support our active duty personnel during their time of service, and continue to support our veterans when they return home and transition back to civilian life.” 

The legislation advanced by the Senate Majority includes: 

● Active Duty Property Tax Exemptions: This bill, S.2930A, sponsored by the chair of the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa), will provide qualified active duty personnel a property tax exemption. 

● Expanding Licensed Veterans Employment: This bill, S.2113, sponsored by Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-Jamaica), will permit veterans who are licensed to practice a profession in another jurisdiction to practice their profession in New York State while their application to practice their profession in New York State is being processed. 

● Veterans Help and Crisis Line: This bill, S.2283A, sponsored by Sen. Sanders, will provide a toll-free telephone number for use as a help and crisis line to assist veterans. 

● Increase of Real Property Tax Exemption for Dual Veteran Households: This bill, S.2570, introduced by Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), will increase the Alternative Veterans Real Property tax exemption when two qualifying veterans reside in the same household. 

● Veteran Academic Credit: This bill, S.2741A, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), will allow full-time undergraduate students enrolled at state-operated institutions to receive academic credit for their military service or training.       

● Expanding Veteran Credits on Civil Service Appointments: This bill, S.3647, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Bay Ridge), will amend Section 6 of Article 5 of the New York State constitution to eliminate the requirement that a veteran must have served in time of war, and allow for all individuals who have served in the armed forces to receive credits for civil service appointments and promotions.

● Military Voters in School District Elections: This bill, S.5184, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Port Chester), will provide military voters the opportunity to vote in school district elections by allowing them to return their absentee ballot by postal mail.

Elected officials, scientists and environmentalists filled the legislative auditorium of the William H. Rogers Building last year to provide testimony against offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Maria Hoffman

State legislators are trying to ensure the federal government doesn’t murk up New York’s coastal waters.

Both the New York State Assembly and Senate passed legislation Feb. 4 and Feb. 5 to prohibit oil and natural gas drilling in New York’s coastal areas. The legislative action comes a year after hundreds of Long Island residents attended a public hearing at the William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Smithtown to voice concerns relating to discussions on the federal level over potential drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

The bill now awaits the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

Assemblyman Steve Englebright addresses the crowd before a hearing last year concerning the proposal of offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Maria Hoffman

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the Assembly environmental conservation committee chair, was one of the legislators who hosted last year’s Smithtown hearing. The assemblyman said in a statement those who attended the hearing unanimously condemned the federal government’s proposal to drill for oil and gas in open waters.

“This legislation will safeguard our water and shores from the dangers of fossil fuel exploration and drilling, and will support our efforts to move our state toward cleaner and renewable energy sources,” Englebright said.

The legislation would prohibit the use of state-owned underwater coastal lands for oil and natural gas drilling; prevent the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Office of General Services from authorizing leases which would increase oil or natural gas production from federal waters; and prohibit the development of infrastructure associated with exploration, development or production of oil or natural gas from New York’s coastal waters, according to a press release from Englebright’s office.

The new legislation will reaffirm the state’s coastal management practices to ensure the protection of endangered and threatened species, along with tourism and recreational and commercial fishing industries, according to Englebright.

“Our largest industry in New York, and especially in coastal New York, is tourism,” Englebright said. “Oil and gas exploration is incompatible with tourism. We’ve seen the kinds of mistakes that have occurred in other parts of the world where oil and gas exploration near recreation areas and near active fisheries has occurred. We don’t want those kinds of chaos to descend upon our economy or our state.”

“We’ve seen the kinds of mistakes that have occurred in other parts of the world where oil and gas exploration near recreation areas and near active fisheries has occurred. We don’t want those kinds of chaos to descend upon our economy or our state.”

— Steve Englebright

The legislation updates New York State laws that are decades old, according to a press release from state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport).

“Offshore drilling is the single largest threat to the sustainability of Long Island’s environment,” Gaughran said in a statement. “I am proud that under [Senate] Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins [D-Yonkers], New York State is moving toward protecting our natural resources and banning senseless proposals to drill off our beautiful coast.”

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who was the original lead sponsor of the legislation in the state Senate, said he urges the governor to sign the bill.

“We have painstakingly worked to preserve and protect our pristine waters, and we certainly do not want to imperil all of our efforts to maintain clean water by allowing drilling off our shoreline,” LaValle said.

Kevin McAllister, founding president of Sag Harbor-based nonprofit Defend H2O, said restricting oil and gas exploration off the coast is important as the drilling for fossil fuels negatively impacts the environment. He said it’s critical for states along the entire Eastern Seaboard to follow suit, and he urges Cuomo to enlist coastal solidarity.

“If rising seas, ocean acidification, killer floods aren’t sobering enough, don’t overlook a legacy of regret with oil extraction and transport,” he said. “Santa Barbara oil spill, Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon all inflicted massive damages to the marine and the coastal environment over thousands of square miles. In the oil industry, accidents happen. The best way to prevent another catastrophe is to close the door on further exploration.”

State legislators recently voted on legislation to reform voting in New York.

Assembly members had voting on their minds.

Both houses passed a package of bills Jan. 14 which are currently awaiting the signatures of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Legislators said the goal of the bills is to reform the state’s current electoral process to make voting easier and to reduce the influence of special interest in elections, according to a press release from the office of state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket).

“Our vote to eliminate barriers will make voting more accessible to all state residents.”

— Steve Englebright

“It’s a good day for democracy in New York,” Englebright said in the release. “Our vote to eliminate barriers will make voting more accessible to all state residents.”

One piece of legislation will establish a nine-day early voting period starting in the 2019 general election. The period will include two weekends to allow voters to cast their votes in person, also before any primary or special election. This is what 35 other states and Washington, D.C., already do.

“New York is no longer behind the rest of the country,” said state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport).

Gaughran said many residents have told him that there have been times they have been unable to vote due to being stuck in the city with work or with inclement weather delaying trains. He added early voting would benefit all parties and races.

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said in a statement if the bills become law there will not only be more time to cast votes but more clarity on primary day as well as more transparency.

“In today’s society, with so many people working long hours, combined with active lifestyles, the system needs to change to make it easier for individuals to participate in elections,” LaValle said in a release.

Another bill will change absentee voting no earlier than November 2021. Currently, a voter can cast an absentee ballot if they know they will be unable to do so Election Day due to physical illness or disability. An amendment to the New York State Constitution would allow for “no excuse” absentee voting.

“In today’s society, with so many people working long hours, combined with active lifestyles, the system needs to change to make it easier for individuals to participate in elections.”

— Ken LaValle

State legislators also passed bills to combine the state primary with the federal non-presidential primary. If Cuomo signs it into law, these primaries will take place in June. Gaughran said the move would save taxpayer dollars, and it ensures the NYS election laws comply with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which helps in the efficiency of military members serving overseas and citizens who live abroad voting in U.S. elections. Gaughran said he thinks combining primaries will help those who are currently overseas vote as easily for local offices as well as federal.

Another piece of legislation will allow voter registration to be allowed up to Election Day instead of 10 days or before. New York State voters will need to vote on the act as a constitutional amendment. Another bill would automatically transfer a voter’s registration when they move within New York state instead of residents needing to update when they move from one county to another.

The state legislators approved a bill that will require voter registration forms to include a space for preregistering for those 16 and 17 years of age. LaValle said, as a former teacher and principal, the bill was a meaningful one for him for young people to stay involved in the political process.

“It is my hope that when the measures become law, more people will take advantage of the opportunity to vote, allow more of voices to be heard, and thereby strengthen our government in the process,” LaValle said.

Both houses passed legislation to restrict the LLC loophole, which allows LLCs to make campaign contributions as individuals, and enables one person or corporation that owns multiple LLCs to funnel donations to a single candidate or committee. If Cuomo signs the bill, LLC campaign contributions will be limited to a $5,000 aggregate — the same limit that exists for corporations — and would require the disclosure of all owners of the LLC, whether direct or indirect.