By State Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine
The April 1st deadline for our state budget is fast approaching. My colleagues and I continue to work on creating a balanced budget that closes our $15 billion budget gap and address our needs throughout New York, especially here in Central and Northern New York.
It’s about making the hard choices and cuts now. The stimulus simply bought us time. It’s better that we make these choices on our own terms, rather than wait and have these choices made for us with an even larger crisis hanging over our state. Our efforts are aimed at protecting the working men and women across this state and their families, who have been hit hardest by the economic downturn.
Last week, we took one step toward that goal outside of the budget process when we passed with unanimous support important legislation to make health insurance affordable for the people who have lost their jobs. The bill we passed cuts the cost of continuing health care coverage known as COBRA by 65 percent with money from the federal stimulus plan.
A report released in January showed that COBRA in New York State cost out-of-work New Yorkers about one-third of their unemployment benefits, making it unaffordable for most to continue their healthcare coverage while they looked for a new job. This legislation, which Gov. David Paterson signed into law immediately, will make sure people who have lost their jobs as far back as September have access to affordable health insurance coverage. The new law does not pass this cost to the businesses and even opens up COBRA to people laid off from small businesses with 19 or fewer employees.
Last week was also Sunshine Week, a national initiative started in 2002 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and dedicated to creating dialogue and freedom of information in the public sector. It’s a time each year when we emphasize the importance of playing an active role in government at all levels. The new Senate Majority has introduced a package of bills to help open up government and give people the access required for our democracy to be at its best.
One of the bills I’ve signed on to co-sponsor with Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer would establish much needed penalties for violating open meetings law. We’ve seen the articles in our newspapers or on television when local governments shut out the public by violating open meetings law with an executive session or some other means. This goes against the principles of democracy and neither our media nor the public have any real recourse in this scenario.
Open government is essential to democracy and reforms are long overdue. I believe strongly that government must be open and accessible. The legislation I’ve sponsored would give our open meetings law the teeth it needs for a court to levy fines or even delay actions taken in unlawfully closed meetings. With this in place, the people and the press have an avenue they can use to challenge decisions made behind closed doors.
So, as we move into spring and continue to work together to pass a balanced budget with responsible investments and targeted cuts, we will also continue to take other steps to protect New Yorkers, make government more open and help our businesses prosper, so that our economy can rebound.