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Women's rights bills stalled for third year in Albany

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Women’s rights bills were once again debated in the legislature, but ended in a political stalemate, with none of the provisions coming any closer to passage by both houses.

For years, Republicans in the state Senate, Democrats in the state Assembly, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have bickered over a package of bills known as the Women’s Equality Act. They include an equal pay provision, anti-sex trafficking and anti-domestic violence measures.

Most lawmakers agree that those items should become law and they passed unanimously in the state Senate on the second full day of the legislative session. Freshman Sen. Richard Funke of Rochester sponsored the bills.

“It’s time to make our state work better for all women,” Funke said.

But lawmakers are divided over one of the provisions, which focuses on abortion rights. Democrats say it merely codifies into state law the protections in the federal Roe v. Wade decision. Republicans contend that it would expand abortion rights in some unacceptable ways and could lead to abortions in the ninth month of pregnancy, which supporters deny.

Democrats in the Assembly want all of the provisions to be passed together as one law. They worry that if the abortion provision were to stand alone it might not be approved at all in the GOP-led Senate, where Republican leaders oppose the measure.

That led Sen. John Bonacic, of the Hudson Valley, to accuse the Democrats and their leader, Speaker Sheldon Silver, of holding the other measures hostage to the abortion rights provision.

“How can Sheldon Silver himself say he’s for women’s rights and not pass these eight bills?" Bonacic asked, during debate on the Senate floor.

Silver made clear that the Women’s Equality Act would be passed with the abortion rights provision included or none of the bills would be considered at all at this time.

“A woman’s right to choose is a fundamental right and the Senate so far has not shown any inkling toward that,” Silver said.

The speaker accused the Senate GOP of passing watered down versions of equal pay and other bills. Silver says the weaker bills were negotiated originally as part of a package that was supposed to also include the abortion rights provision, but the deal ultimately fell through.

“This is about covering themselves,” the Speaker said.

Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins accused her Republican colleagues of engaging in manipulation. She says she’d like to add even more items to the women’s rights package, like better family leave policies.

“Obviously, there are things that have been left undone,” Stewart-Cousins said.

The stand off means that none of the women’s rights bills can become law, unless something changes.

Cuomo originally proposed the Women’s Equality Act but was unsuccessful in getting it approved in the 2013 and 2014 sessions. He even began a new political party known as the Women’s Equality Party, and campaigned on the issue.

The governor may signal his next step in his State of the State and budget message on Jan. 21.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.