The Remarks of Speaker Carl E. Heastie

Opening the 244th Legislative Session

January 11, 2021
Assembly Chamber
[as prepared]

Good afternoon members, staff, interns and guests. No matter where you are joining us from, welcome to the People’s House. Things may look different this year than they have in years past, but one thing remains unchanged – my colleagues and I are ready to do the people’s work.

I usually begin this address by wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year, and while that sentiment undoubtedly still remains, today it means so much more. This year, that sentiment is not just a routine New Year’s well wish – it is a deep and profound yearning after a long year of struggle and immeasurable loss. This terrible pandemic has affected us all - and I know we in the Assembly will be laser focused this session on helping New York recover and thrive.

We can and we will overcome this. I am privileged to lead this team of tenured all stars in the Assembly Majority, and I know that their wisdom and commitment to our values combined with the fresh and energetic perspectives of our new members will get us through the challenges ahead. For us in the Assembly Majority, the members may change but our game plan remains the same. New York families will always be our priority.

In the weeks and months ahead, we have a lot of work to do to heal our state and our nation.

The frightening act of domestic terrorism that we witnessed last week at our nation’s capitol was a shameful attempt by the president of the United States and his allies to dismantle the foundation of our democracy for personal gain, and while it shook our nation to its core it also shined a light on how desperately change and healing is needed in this country. At least six people lost their lives in the aftermath of the senseless violence that took place that day, including a member of the Capitol Police.

We are saddened to learn another Capitol Police officer has since taken his own life. We are thinking of their families and loved ones during this difficult time. We are also deeply grateful to our sergeant at arms and all the New York State Capitol security personnel for keeping us safe while we do the people’s work. There are many challenges ahead, but here in New York we remain deeply committed to defending our democracy.

To my Assembly Minority colleagues, I look forward to working with you again this year. With so much division in national politics today, I am extremely grateful that despite our political differences we always maintain a peaceful, collegial relationship.

New Yorkers are not strangers to adversity. We have been tested many times before, but we have always risen again. From our nation’s most devastating terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 to countless natural disasters including Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, record breaking snow and ice storms and historic flooding on the shores of Lake Ontario – New Yorkers have always proven to be most resilient.

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing us once again. Since this virus first reached New York in early 2020, more than 39,000 New Yorkers have passed away – an unimaginable loss. Too many families are starting this year without a loved one. I think about these families often, and my heart breaks for them.

When this health crisis began, New Yorkers did what they always do – they came together to care for one another. In typical New York fashion, the very worst of times has brought out the very best in people.

Our healthcare workers put their lives at risk and many have spent weeks or months separated from their families – sleeping in hotels, spare bedrooms or garages –so that they could hold the hands of our loved ones when we could not.

When COVID-19 closed our schools, the ingenuity and dedication of our teachers helped bring the classroom into the homes of our students. They have battled with limited broadband access and worked to keep students engaged through a computer screen, but they have never stopped fighting for their students. School buses delivered meals and resources to children, and even served as Wi-Fi hotspots to help ensure our students have the internet access they need. To children and families alike, educators truly are heroes.

Throughout this pandemic, our essential workers have put their lives at risk every day so that the rest of us can stay home and stay safe. From first responders to grocery store clerks to sanitation workers to delivery drivers to public transit workers, these hardworking New Yorkers have kept our state moving in the toughest of times. They are the lifeblood of our communities.

When thousands of New Yorkers lost their jobs and faced food insecurity, farms all across this state from the shores of Lake Erie to the tip of Long Island did their best to keep up with increased demand at our food banks.

Throughout this pandemic, we have relied on science to help us to establish best practices, track the virus, develop new treatments and of course, create and manufacture a lifesaving vaccine. We are incredibly proud and grateful to have some of the best scientists in the world working right here in New York at SUNY, Regeneron, and Pfizer, as well as critical manufacturers like Corning who produced the vials needed to store the vaccine.

While this pandemic has shined a light on how selfless and caring New Yorkers are, it has also exposed the cracks in our foundation, and those cracks have had a ripple effect. Through long lines at food banks and devastating unemployment, this global health emergency and the resulting economic crisis have revealed in the harsh light of day just how close our friends and neighbors are to putting their children to bed hungry or facing eviction or foreclosure.

The COVID-19 crisis has also laid bare the health disparities that have always existed, particularly for people of color. Long before this pandemic began, people of color have suffered from disparities in health care and higher rates of chronic illness. It is an issue my colleagues and I have fought tirelessly to rectify for years.

Paired with less access to care, implicit racial bias in our health care system and higher uninsured rates, this pandemic has only served to exacerbate these inequities resulting in higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. We need to ensure that everyone has access to health care. We must do better.

When the COVID-19 pandemic transformed our homes into classrooms, teachers, students and families were faced with new challenges, as well as some familiar ones.

My colleagues and I have always said that education is the great equalizer, but when classes started streaming online, access to broadband, computers and tablets became the new great equalizer. Broadband access is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Families with more than one student need more than one device for remote learning. This pandemic highlighted that for many families, regardless of where they live, cost and accessibility to high speed internet and devices limit student’s ability to fully participate in remote learning. This digital divide is a huge threat to academic achievement.

For many students, school is much more than a place to learn – it is a support system that offers children access to guidance counselors and social workers. It is critical socialization and engagement through face-to-face interactions with peers and teachers, as well as consistent nutritional meals. This pandemic has disrupted that vital safety net for so many children.

School serves as not only an educational space for children, but a safe and reliable form of child care that allows parents and caregivers to go to work with peace of mind. When schools closed, families were forced to make difficult decisions and piece together child care while worrying about learning loss and the mental wellness of their children – all while fulfilling the obligations of their jobs.

We must fight to make sure that our students – the next generation – are not left behind.

And while New York may have been “paused” to help stop this virus and keep New Yorkers healthy and safe, we could not pause the social justice issues that have long plagued our nation and our state.

Last year, in the midst of this global pandemic, our country had a long overdue awakening. For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, Americans were able to see in painstaking detail what so many of us fear every day of our lives: the senseless murder of yet another unarmed black person at the hands of law enforcement.

Across the globe, and all across New York, from big cities to small towns, people took to the streets and demanded action. After years of fighting tirelessly for criminal justice reform, my colleagues and I in the Assembly Majority were ready to meet the moment. We refused to let the death of George Floyd and the countless other people of color who died before him be in vain.

In June, we acted quickly to pass sweeping police reforms that deliver transparency and accountability, and help to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. We look forward to continuing to work with all our partners in government to reach that common goal. I am proud of the work that we have done, but recognize that we must continue to review and consider other necessary reforms in the future.

As we begin this new year, we are facing some of the most challenging times in our state’s history. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated parts of our economy and recovery will not be easy, but I know that there is hope because we have always risen to the occasion.

When my colleagues and I in the Assembly Majority saw that the cost of living kept rising while wages remained stagnant, we fought to raise the minimum wage and help lift New Yorkers out of poverty.

When we saw families struggling to balance – or even worse – being forced to choose between caring for a new child or a sick family member, we passed a comprehensive Paid Family Leave program.

We have seen the educational inequality in our communities and we have been the loudest voice in the room fighting for funding for our public schools. Every year we push for increased funding so our children can get the education they deserve.

Since we launched the Higher Education Road to Success Initiative in 2015, we have increased funding for opportunity programs by more than 40 percent to put higher education within reach for many low and middle income families. We must continue to find more ways to make college affordable for all New Yorkers.

For years, we have tirelessly fought to protect women’s reproductive rights and ensure access to family planning, and in 2019 we finally did just that with the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act and the Boss Bill.

While the regressive administration in Washington rolled back the rights and protections of LGBTQ Americans, here in New York the Assembly Majority passed legislation that we had championed for years to ban the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy and protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination.

When our immigrant community was under attack by the xenophobic administration soon to leave Washington, my colleagues and I stepped up to protect our fellow New Yorkers. We helped ensure our DREAMers could reach their highest potential by passing the Senator José Peralta New York State DREAM Act. We restored dignity to hardworking immigrants by ensuring that every New Yorker can get a driver’s license by passing the Greenlight Law. We reduced misdemeanor sentences to ensure petty crimes did not result in harsh collateral consequences such as deportation.

We also recognize that the suffering brought on by this pandemic does not discriminate on the basis of immigration status. We must protect all New Yorkers from the devastating consequences of this global pandemic.

We passed the Farm Workers Law to ensure that the hardworking men and women that keep our agriculture sector moving are treated with dignity and respect and experience the same workplace fairness as every other hardworking New Yorker.

For years, we have championed critical criminal justice reforms to ensure that every New Yorker is treated fairly and that your economic status does not determine how fairly you are treated. We have raised the age of criminal responsibility, ended the use of cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, updated our discovery laws and reformed our speedy trial provisions.

We took bold and decisive action to mitigate the effects of climate change here in New York by passing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and banning single use plastic bags.

When we saw the gun violence epidemic spreading across our nation, we passed comprehensive common sense legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, ensure background checks, keep guns out of our schools and help get illegal guns and modifications off our streets. We know that guns are still too accessible and we must do more to stop the senseless gun violence plaguing our communities.

When we saw New Yorkers struggling to secure affordable housing, we passed a historic and comprehensive package of affordable housing legislation.

So many of these bills were born right here in the People’s House because my Assembly Majority colleagues and I are always ready to move New York forward. In fact, most of the progressive legislation passed over the last five years started right here in the People’s House and was conceptualized over the last two decades by the dedicated and forward thinking members of our Assembly Majority.

Like I said before, New Yorkers always rise to the challenge.

After four long years of a divisive administration in Washington, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. On January 20th, basic human decency and civility will be restored to the Oval Office. We will once again have an administration working for Americans, guided by science and data and a strong moral compass.

Under the Biden-Harris administration, my colleagues and I look forward to spending less time fighting off attacks on our democracy and the rights of New Yorkers, and instead spending more time working on moving New York forward and rising from this crisis. We also look forward to working with this new administration and this new Congress to get New Yorkers the relief they need and deserve.

Because we are New Yorkers, we will rise from this crisis – but we cannot do it alone.

Since this pandemic began, our Congressional delegation has fought to deliver working families, small businesses and states the relief they need to get us through this crisis. We are thankful for the work that they have done so far, but the need for more help is still dire.

I would also like to congratulate the former assemblymember and Brooklyn’s own U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer on soon becoming majority leader of the United States Senate. Chuck has spent his career in public service fighting for New Yorkers, and I am confident that he will continue to fight for New York – and all Americans – in his new role.

States and localities simply cannot bear the brunt of a global pandemic. It is incumbent upon the federal government to aid states during this global health crisis. As I have said repeatedly, this house will do what we can to raise the necessary revenue to meet the many challenges New York faces. But we cannot do it alone. I am hopeful that the Biden-Harris administration, along with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer will get the resources we sorely need to help get the state through this terrible pandemic.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the cap placed on state and local tax deductions has been devastating New York families. Now more than ever, we need the federal government to relieve them of this burden and restore the full SALT deduction.

My colleagues and I have fought tirelessly to keep New Yorkers in their homes, but this pandemic has left billions in rental arrears. We must work with the federal government to establish stop gap measures that help residential renters stay in their homes, small business commercial renters keep their businesses open and prevent foreclosures, especially for our small landlords.

We have witnessed miles-long lines at our food banks and we have fought to keep them funded, but we need federal aid to keep New York families from going hungry.

There were disparities in our healthcare system that existed before the pandemic and they have only worsened during this healthcare crisis. We need to ensure that every single New Yorker has access to quality, affordable healthcare.

After years of fighting for funding for our schools to ensure a brighter future for our children, federal help is critical to building on our progress.

Like I said earlier, my colleagues and I have stepped up time and time again to protect immigrant New Yorkers. After four years of attacks and living in the shadows, our immigrant friends and neighbors need help from this pandemic just as badly as any other struggling New Yorker. They too have been placed under significant financial strain during this health crisis.

While unemployment insurance is a critical lifeline for the millions of New Yorkers who lost their jobs during this pandemic, we need the federal government to ensure that small businesses are not financially strained by increased unemployment insurance premiums and that states that are in dire economic straits are not on the hook for billions of dollars borrowed to pay for those unemployment claims.

We are optimistic that under this new administration Americans should expect to finally get the help that is so desperately needed. As President-Elect Joe Biden has said, there are no red states or blue states, only united states.

We are also optimistic that the end of this pandemic is in sight. Experts say that we need between 75 and 85 percent of the population vaccinated to reach herd immunity. The sooner we get all New Yorkers vaccinated, the sooner we can get back to work, school and spending time with our loved ones.

Most importantly, building back our economy means getting New Yorkers back to work. In order to maintain our position as the global economic leader, we must step up and raise much-needed revenue to shore up the foundations of our social safety net. When New Yorkers get back to work, the wheels of our economy will begin turning again. Small businesses will have shoppers. Restaurants will have patrons. Public transportation will have more riders. New York will be back.

We can and we will overcome this because, as I said, our past record shows there is no challenge we cannot overcome. I look forward to working with each of you to address all these issues and to continue to put New York families first.

Now I would like to invite everyone to join me in extending a warm welcome to our new intern class of 2021. In these unprecedented times, whether virtually or physically, we look forward to having you here with us.

On behalf of all the members, I want to thank Assemblymember Deborah Glick, chair of the Higher Education Committee as well as the Intern Committee; Kathleen McCarty, our program director; and all of the committee staff for their support.

Welcome back to our returning faculty members, Dr. Janet Penksa leading our graduate interns, Dr. Angela Ledford, Dr. Wesley Nishiyama and Dr. Anthony Maniscalco who will lead our undergraduates.

My Assembly colleagues, once again, welcome back to the People’s House for the 244th Legislative Session. With your help, I look forward to getting this great state back on track.

Now let’s get to work!