BY JON CRONIN
As legislators get back to work in Albany and D.C., Queens’ new representatives are taking a stand and writing new policy, all while learning the ropes.
Stacey Pheffer Amato
“It’s wonderful. I’m so excited,” said new District 23 Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Beach). After spending time in Albany last week, Pheffer Amato came back to her district. “Right now, I’m having a lot of meetings to touch base with local organizations,” she said.
On Jan. 9 and 10, the Assembly voted back in Assemblyman Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) as their speaker of the house and “some small housekeeping bills,” Pheffer Amato said.
During that first week of the session, Pheffer Amato learned the committees on which she’s serving: Government Employees, Veterans Affairs, Consumer Affairs, and Racing and Wagering.
“It was very exciting on two different levels,” she noted. She marveled at “the excitement of the capital itself and its beauty” as well as “the power and the history of the Assembly.”
“You could feel the magnitude and weight of your decisions for not only my constituency, but the entire responsibility for the state,” she said.
She said when she was in Albany she “sits taller.”
“It sounds corny but it’s true: I read every piece of paper coming across my desk thinking how it will affect and how it will better the community,” she said.
She also pointed out that she and her mother, Audrey Pheffer, are the first mother and daughter to represent the same seat in the assembly in the history of the New York state assembly. Audrey Pheffer served District 23 from 1987 to 2011.
Her priority is transportation. She took on the mantle of fighting for the reactivation of the Rockaway Rail Line, and is now waiting to read the transportation details in the governor’s budget. She said she wants to make sure her constituents get their usual tax refund for the fare they pay on the Cross Bay Bridge.
She is also eager to read further into Cuomo’s proposal for the restructuring of JFK.
“The devil is in the details,” she said.
As Brian Barnwell got to know his new colleagues in the Assembly, he was also excited to hit the ground running by putting forth several bills aiding aging seniors, affordable housing and domestic-violence cases.
His first bill will aid seniors taking part in the Enhanced Star Program, which assesses homes at 50 percent of their value once homeowners reach age 65. Barnwell believes seniors should have their property tax progressively lowered as they age because their savings often dwindle.
“You have a lot more money saved at 65 than 80,” he said.
Another bill aids in the tax on pensions. Barnwell stated that, currently, a New York State resident gets $20,000 tax exempt from his/her pension. He is trying to get that increased to $30,000.
The two others are criminal justice reform bills. One of his concerns regarding an order of protection from a judge is that “currently, it’s only a piece of paper.”
“If you violate the order of protection you can be sentenced to a year in jail. That’s not a big deterrent,” said Barnwell.
He added that he has spoken to many police officers regarding this issue. They told him it would be more helpful in the court system if, when people violate the order of protection violently, they are sentenced to a mandatory year in jail.
He also wants to increase the sentence on rape in cases of incest and child abuse in the first degree. Currently, the longest sentence is 25 years, but he wants to increase it to life in prison.
“Judges shouldn’t have their hands tied because of the legislation,” Barnwell said.
Barnwell also created a bill to deter people who sell dogs from buying from a puppy mill. He said it forces anyone looking to sell an animal in a pet store to purchase it from a shelter or humane society. Regarding puppy mills, he said, “There have to be good ones, [but] we have a lot of shelter animals.”
“The big one is trying to create affordable housing,” said Barnwell. He explained that when the current average median income (AMI) is calculated for Queens, the income for Westchester residents is also factored in, and this raises the AMI.
His bill will ensure that AMI is measured only by zip code. Barnwell noted that some have criticized him for this idea because developers won’t build there.
“Well, good,” he said. “Then there won’t be any gentrification. It will keep prices more affordable for residents if it passes.”
In our nation’s capital, newly elected U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Huntington) said that his first days in Washington have been great, but overwhelming.
“It’s a very common expression I heard: ‘It’s like drinking from a fire hose,’” he said. “It’s like so much at once.”
Suozzi began his tenure by setting up offices in Washington and the Nassau County town of Huntington. He is in the midst of finalizing a location along Northern Boulevard for a Queens office. He was also appointed to the House’s foreign affairs committee and will be appointed to a second committee sometime next week.
He is also making some early moves this week to address one of northeast Queens’ biggest problems.
“I’m going to the air traffic controller’s tower at LaGuardia to talk to them about the airport noise,” he said. “That’s gonna be my first focus because I know how important that is to a lot of people in northeast Queens.”
Additionally, Suozzi co-sponsored his first bill, condemning the United Nations resolution criticizing Israeli settlements in occupied territories in his “maiden speech” on the House floor.
He is also joining a group called the Problem Solving Caucus to help fulfill his campaign promise to work across the aisle and accomplish key goals.
Reach Editor Jon Cronin at 718-357-7400 x125, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JonathanSCronin
–James Farrell contributed to this article.