The Remarks of Speaker Carl E. Heastie Opening the 243rd Legislative Session

January 9, 2020
Assembly Chamber

[as prepared]

Good afternoon members, staff, interns and guests. Welcome to the New York State Assembly Chamber - the People's House of the New York State Legislature. Before we begin, I'd like to wish you all a healthy and happy new year.

Please join me in welcoming Rabbi Matthew Cutler from Congregation Gates of Heaven.

I would also like to thank Reverend Naomi Tyler-Lloyd, Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church from my assembly district in the Bronx for being here with us today.

And of course, I want to thank my princess, Taylor, for being here with me today.

I also want to extend a warm welcome to my constituents that traveled from the Bronx to be here with me today. As I have always said, I'm truly blessed to have the support of the best constituents this country has to offer.

And of course, welcome to all my colleagues no matter what side of the aisle you call home.

To my colleagues in the majority, we have accomplished much together, and I know working together we will continue to accomplish great things. More on that in a moment.

I'd like to welcome my friend and colleague the new Minority Leader Will Barclay. Congratulations - I look forward to working with you. To my good friends on the other side of the aisle, your input and contributions to the political discourse are important. I'm extremely grateful for our ability to avoid the rancor we see in the national discourse. Welcome back and I look forward to a productive legislative session.

Last year, so many of the ideas that started many years ago right here in the People's House finally became law. Each of you was sent here to improve the lives of New Yorkers, and last year we truly delivered. It was all of you that crafted the legislation and cast your votes. We are the parents of these transformational changes, and I am confident in the year ahead we will deliver once again. I want to congratulate the members, particularly in the majority, for a job well done. You deserve a standing ovation because these laws started with you before they became a Twitter theme.

No doubt - our successes reaffirmed our status as progressive leaders and helped us fulfill our promise to put families first at a critical time for our nation.

After many years of advocating for tenants' rights, we delivered the strongest protections for tenants in history so that hardworking New Yorkers can continue to live in the neighborhoods they helped to build. And these new laws are working - in just six months, evictions in New York City have dropped about 20 percent.

As states across the nation passed legislation to restrict or eliminate women's access to reproductive health care and autonomy over their bodies, we guaranteed those rights for women by passing the Reproductive Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act.

After years of passage in the Assembly, transgender New Yorkers finally have the statutory protections of GENDA, and our youth will never again be subject to the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy.

We know climate change and its consequences are real. Wildfires are ravaging California and Australia. Hurricanes have grown stronger and more devastating, including in the birthplace of my grandparents in the Bahamas. Here in New York, we are taking action. Last year, we passed the New York State Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act to put us on a path to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions and banned single use plastic bags. We will continue to find meaningful ways to address this global crisis.

We made the City of New York the first American city to implement congestion pricing, and in doing so, we developed a sustainable revenue stream for the MTA to help keep New Yorkers and our statewide economy moving.

While the administration in Washington tears families apart and fights to build walls, we passed the Senator Jose Peralta New York State DREAM Act and the Greenlight bill to ensure our friends and neighbors have the resources they need to continue to make meaningful contributions to their communities and our state.

Thoughts and prayers as a response to gun violence are not enough. Here in New York, we passed common sense gun legislation including the red flag bill and a ban on bump stocks, and we will continue to do what we can. But we can't keep illegal guns out of New York alone - federal action is needed and long overdue.

By finally passing the Child Victims Act, we gave survivors of childhood sexual abuse an opportunity to seek justice and have their day in court.

We brought our antiquated election laws into the 21st century by giving voters a nine day early voting period and streamlining the registration process because voter participation doesn't scare us - it's the foundation of our democracy.

Last year, we took a major step towards fixing the tilted scales of justice by decriminalizing marijuana. We look forward to working with our colleagues to develop a thoughtful approach towards legalization.

For too long, our criminal justice system has allowed those with the means to grease the wheels of justice, leaving those without to languish. Last year, we took much needed steps to reform our broken system by updating our discovery laws and reforming speedy trial provisions. We ended the use of cash bail for lower level offenses because our criminal justice system must work for everyone - not just those who can afford it.

By implementing this system, everyone is treated the same. This removes the potential bias of judges or prosecutors, which could result in defendants being treated unfairly. Along with these changes, we are making sure people get access to critical services.

We adopted laws to protect New Yorkers from harassment and discrimination and expanded civil rights protections in schools because make no mistake - we in the Assembly have no tolerance for hate based on religion, race, gender, sexual orientation or any other form. The recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks in New York is both horrifying and unacceptable.

No doubt, it was a historic year for New York and we have a lot to be proud of, but we know that our work is never done. In the year ahead, our commitment to the issues that matter most to New Yorkers will never waver.

Yesterday, the governor outlined his agenda for the coming year. Many of these ideas began right here in the Assembly, and I am encouraged that many of these issues have the potential to become law this session.

While the administration in Washington has fought endlessly to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, here in New York we have worked to get more people insured, and we are succeeding. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data revealing New York's insured rate has hit an all-time high of 95 percent.

In the year ahead, we will address the spending imbalance in the Medicaid program while continuing our fight to ensure all New Yorkers have access to high quality, affordable health care. We will protect our safety net facilities, small and rural hospitals, and centers of community-based care throughout the state. And we will ensure that our seniors and the disabled are able to stay in their own homes, in their communities, with dignity, comfort and respect.

Since I became speaker in 2015, we have increased school aid by more than $6 billion because the Assembly Majority has always believed that the best investment in our future is an investment in public education. Let's keep that momentum this year by providing our school districts with the resources they need to allow our children to succeed, beginning with pre-k.

We know higher education is critical to climbing the economic ladder and ending the cycle of poverty. Since 2015, we have strengthened our commitment to high quality, public education by increasing funding support for opportunity programs by more than 40 percent to help thousands of students attend college and become the middle class of tomorrow. We will continue to work to ensure our SUNY and CUNY campuses have world class infrastructure and facilities to best serve their students.

During my annual statewide tour this summer, I visited local shops and businesses in downtowns all over New York, and the common refrain is that our businesses have the goods and services people need, but they need roads and bridges not only to bring their wares to market, but to access a qualified workforce. We will continue to make strategic investments in infrastructure across the state because successful economies connect workers to jobs and businesses to markets.

Much like we did with our craft beverage industry, we will continue to revitalize our upstate economy with our vast agricultural resources. Over my years as speaker, I have visited many farms and gained a good understanding of the challenges this industry is facing.

Last summer, I learned that New York is considered one of the largest consumer markets for hemp products in the country, attracting processors and manufacturers looking to take advantage of popular hemp products. Over the last four years, hemp production has grown from just 60 acres to over 20,000 acres farmed by 480 growers today. This growing industry presents many opportunities for New York's agricultural industry, and we will look for other ways to support New York farmers.

We must also ensure that every New Yorker gets counted in the 2020 census. An accurate census count is critical to receiving our fair share of the more than $675 billion in federal funds used for schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital programs.

In the year ahead, I will work with Assembly committee chairs to develop comprehensive legislation to address the critical issues New Yorkers are facing, including poverty, homelessness and the opioid epidemic.

In the wealthiest country in world, it is unconscionable that so many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Yet the United Way reported that in 2016, 45 percent of New Yorkers could not afford basic needs such as housing, child care, food or transportation.

The number of New Yorkers who were homeless over a recent 12 month period exceeded 250,000 - more than the populations of every city in the state except for Buffalo and New York.

In New York City, the number of people sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 59 percent higher than it was 10 years ago. The number of homeless single adults is 142 percent higher than it was 10 years ago. And these are just the people that seek and use shelters. It does not include the invisible homeless, people who are forced to stay with family or friends. It is simply unacceptable that safe, affordable housing is out of reach for so many New Yorkers. We look forward to working with the governor, Mayor de Blasio, county executives and mayors across the state to meet these challenges head on.

Research shows that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is a lack of affordable housing, while homeless single adults are often homeless due to higher rates of serious mental illness, addiction disorders and other severe health problems. We cannot address these issues in piecemeal fashion - they are all interconnected. It is time, once and for all, that we put an end to the homeless crisis by keeping people in their homes and making continued investments in supportive housing for those who need it.

And after giving massive tax breaks to millionaires, billionaires and corporations, the administration in Washington had the audacity to roll out a plan to eliminate SNAP benefits for nearly 700,000 Americans, with the potential for another 2.3 million to lose their benefits if additional changes are implemented.

Here in New York, we recognize that hunger and food insecurity are not the result of laziness. Every single person struggling to put food on the table is facing a unique set of challenges. Some are full-time caregivers for family members. Some lack access to transportation. Ensuring that people have food to eat does not discourage work - it ends hunger.

Across the nation, communities are still struggling with the consequences of an opioid epidemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and devastated families and communities. We all know an individual or a family that has been devastated by the opioid crisis.

In November, the Assembly formed the Task Force on Examining Socio-Economic Responses to People with Substance Use Disorders to find more holistic approaches to ending this epidemic. I am also proud of the work New York is doing to hold unscrupulous opioid manufacturers accountable. I look forward to finding more ways to bring greater transparency and accountability to the industry, while meeting the many needs of the communities impacted by their unethical business practices.

We have fought to support and fund important initiatives to aid those who struggle with substance use disorders and we are making progress. Opioid deaths dropped by 8.7 percent in 2018 from the previous year - the first decrease we've seen since 2009. While these numbers outpace the national average, until we no longer see our friends, neighbors and coworkers dealing with a family member caught in the web of addiction or mourning the loss of a loved one to overdose, we have much more work to do.

Too often, people underestimate the role of government in our everyday lives. Here in the People's House, we are committed to serving as the true, direct voice of the people of New York. I am proud to say that this house has been not only the birthplace of many progressive ideas, but many dedicated public servants.

For the last three years, the administration in Washington has fought endlessly to roll back the safeguards that protect people. They have tried desperately to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Women's reproductive rights hang in the balance. Hardworking immigrant families are being torn apart. Environmental protections are disappearing as natural disasters become more devastating and frequent. Under this regressive federal administration, New York will remain as progressive as ever. We will not be idle.

Now more than ever, amidst much division and cynicism, we must double down on our commitment to operating an effective government that serves the people. I look forward to building on that commitment in the year ahead.

I now invite everyone to join me in extending a warm welcome to our new intern class of 2020. We look forward to having you here with us this year.

On behalf of all the members, I want to thank Assemblymember Deborah Glick, chair of 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 Albany for the 243rd Legislative Session. I look forward to what we will accomplish in the year ahead.

Now let's get to work!