With the State Legislature expected to end its 2013 session in less than three weeks, two long-stalled measures affecting the LGBT community face, at best, uncertain prospects. The potential hold-up, in both cases, appears to be on the Senate side.
Ever since the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act was approved by the Legislature in late 2002, transgender rights advocates have pressed Albany to redress what was left out that year — anti-bias protections in state human rights law based on gender identity and expression.
The measure, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), has cleared the Assembly numerous times since 2008, but once again it is unknown if the measure will even get a floor vote in the Senate.
“We remain very optimistic and committed to seeing it pass through the Senate in this session,” Nathan Schaefer, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), told Gay City News on June 4.
Schaefer acknowledged, however, that there are “always a multiplicity of issues” facing the Legislature in the final days of a session, and said he could not spell out a specific path to success.
That’s not for lack of trying. In tandem with its recent Equality and Justice Day lobbying in Albany, ESPA launched a $250,000 media drive that included print, radio, and Internet ads focused on legislators in Albany as well as key target districts around the state.
The drive for the bill has won editorial support from newspapers across the state, and advocates have also enjoyed assists from top law enforcement officials — including James Sheppard, the chief of police in Rochester, and Steven Krokoff, his counterpart in Albany — who aggressively knocked down criticism from opponents of transgender civil rights protections that such laws create public safety problems in locations such as bathrooms and locker rooms. Despite the lack of evidence that such issues have arisen anywhere, the charge has been an emotional rallying cry on the right.
Asked about the lobbying drive just weeks ago, Melissa Sklarz, a leading transgender activist who is president of the Stonewall Democrats of New York City, told the newspaper, “I think there’s been a wonderful concerted effort.” This week, however, she said, “I’ve heard no feedback from anyone in the Senate… Honestly, I’ve got nothing for you today.”
The closest GENDA ever came to reaching the full Senate was in 2010, when the Democrats were in the majority and the Judiciary Committee took up the bill, only to see if fall short when Bronx Democrat Ruben Diaz, Sr., an implacable foe of the LGBT community, joined every committee Republican to block it from getting any further consideration.
This year, the Senate is under the control of a group made up of 30 Republicans, a freshman Democrat from Brooklyn, and another four Democrats banded together under the title of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). Though some Republicans are said to favor GENDA, if their party held an outright majority in the Senate, it is unclear whether their leader, Dean Skelos from Nassau County, would ask the full GOP conference to do what it did two years ago on marriage equality — allow a floor vote even with most of its members opposed to the issue.
Many advocates have pinned their hopes on getting the IDC, whose four members all support GENDA, to use their influence as a junior partner in the governing coalition to wrest an agreement to bring the measure to the floor.
Schaefer said that could be a route to success.
“With power sharing there are a number of different paths to the floor,” he said. “We’re not exactly sure yet which is the best path. There are a few options.”
But the two New York City members of the IDC — Diane Savino of Staten Island and Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx — are Stonewall endorsees and therefore senators Sklarz might reasonably expect to hear from if they were making GENDA a priority. Off the record, numerous advocates have complained that the rump group of Democrats have not pushed the measure in their discussions with Skelos and his fellow Republicans.
Neither Skelos nor Savino — whose visibility in the push for marriage equality was sky high after her floor speech in a 2009 debate circulated on YouTube — returned phone calls seeking comment. One advocate, who insisted on anonymity, told Gay City News that when they pressed Savino on the issue at a recent gathering, she responded, “You’ll have to speak to the governor.”
The absence of forceful advocacy by Andrew Cuomo, who was the star player in the 2011 marriage fight, has also been widely noted. Housing Works, the AIDS services group that shares leadership on the coalition pressing for GENDA with ESPA, last week held a phone zap of the governor’s office.
According to Sunny Bjerk, communications manager at Housing Works, the group is “asking him to use his power to leverage a vote on GENDA. We are especially stressing the point that he has forgotten the ‘T’ in LGBT and that progress goes beyond marriage equality.”
According to Sklarz, efforts aimed at Cuomo have availed no more than those targeting the Senate.
“There certainly has been no feedback from the governor,” she said. “They haven’t reached out to me recently.”
Schaefer was noncommittal on Cuomo’s role, saying simply, “The governor has said that he is supportive. We’ve spoken to his staff and they seem to be understanding of the need for the bill.”
GENDA’s lead Senate sponsor, Democrat Daniel Squadron, who represents Lower Manhattan and portions of Brooklyn, also sidestepped specific comment on what role, if any, other parties — including the GOP, the IDC, and the governor — are playing in the drive to bring the bill across the finish line.
"Now more than ever it's vital that New York sends a strong message that intolerance, discrimination, and hate have no place here or anywhere,” Squadron said in an email message. “It's time to finally pass GENDA so that New York provides all people with the fairness and dignity they deserve."
[Editor's note: Subsequent to the publication of this story, Squadron forwarded this additional comment: "Let me be clear, the GOP and IDC control the floor. We believe the votes are there for GENDA and that the Senate leadership must not block a vote. To do so would be unconscionable."]
The governor’s office did not return an email message seeking comment.
Advocates have been keeping up the pressure with phone-banking aimed at target districts. While ESPA’s Schaefer emphasized, “We believe that we have a good shot,” Bjerk warned that if the bill is not approved this month, “I suspect we protest in a Housing Works-civil disobedience sort of way.”
If supporters of GENDA continue to press ahead, those pushing for rent relief for people living with AIDS seem reconciled to 2013 likely being another dead end. Dating back at least to 2006, advocates have tried to close an anomaly in housing aid to certain clients of the city’s HIV/ AIDS Housing Administration (HASA), by providing sufficient support so that their out-of-pocket rents are no more than 30 percent of their monthly income. Such a cap already exists for tenants in public and congregate care housing — but not to those in the private rental market.
A 2010 estimate by VOCAL-NY, a group that does political organizing among HIV-positive people, found that as many as 11,000 people could be affected by the rent cap legislation. According to VOCAL, HASA clients without such rent protection pay as much as 70 percent of their income on housing and are left with just over $350 each month — or about $12 a day — to provide for their other needs.
Both chambers of the Legislature passed the rent cap in 2010, but Governor David Paterson, during his final months in office, vetoed the bill. Last year, the Senate, which had earlier approved the measure by a lopsided margin, defeated it in a 27-26 vote, a turnabout that advocates attributed to fierce opposition by the Bloomberg administration, which has consistently maintained the cap would cost more than $30 million annually, a figure that the city and state would have to bear equally.
Advocates, in response, have argued that any cost would be offset by public health savings from keeping people with AIDS in their homes, and the City Council has produced its own analysis that pegs the fiscal impact much closer to the advocates’ claims that those of the mayor’s office.
The legislation’s chief Albany sponsors, VOCAL-NY, and other advocates held a press conference on June 4 to signal their intention to keep fighting until the end of session, but out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman, a West Side Democrat, told Gay City News, “Mayor Bloomberg’s opposition makes Senate passage this session very challenging given his strong ties to GOP leadership. I've been strategizing with leaders of the effort, and there is widespread agreement that this year's mayoral race is going to be very important for the future of this legislation.”
In an email message, VOCAL’s Sean Barry, while saying his group “would like to see the bill pass both chambers this session,” also wrote, “We can see light at the end of the tunnel with Bloomberg on his way out. His administration has been the single biggest reason why the rent cap hasn't become law.”
Barry noted that every Democratic mayoral contender has endorsed the 30 percent legislation, with the exception of newcomer candidate Anthony Weiner. Mindful of Paterson’s 2010 veto, Barry said demonstrating “broad-based support” was critical to advocates’ discussions about the bill with the executive branch.
“The Cuomo administration has told us they’re interested in exploring the issue as part of the Medicaid reform process, which has been their main vehicle for making new investments in housing for people with chronic health issues,” Barry said.