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More protests this year than usual at state capitol

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News File Photo

The state Legislature is off this week, but the session so far has featured an unusual amount of protests and arrests, and more actions are expected when lawmakers return. 

Twice in the first few weeks of the 2017 legislative session, protesters have been arrested at the state Capitol.

Eight people were arrested in late January. They were demonstrating against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s veto of a bill that would have provided funding for legal services for indigent New Yorkers.

“We want lawyers!” they shouted.

In early February, four people were arrested after they refused to leave a sit-in at Cuomo’s formal reception room outside his office, known as the War Room. They were seeking solutions to the state’s record homeless problem.

The legislative budget hearings, normally somnolent events, have been punctuated by Occupy-style protesters interrupting proceedings.

The protests are in contrast to the large, staged rallies in recent years organized by, among others, union leaders and charter schools, and featuring elected officials. This year’s events are much smaller, involving no more than 100 people. They represent – and in some cases, are made up of – people who are generally marginalized in society.

Vocal New York, the group behind some of the protests, was formed in the 1980s to advocate for people living with AIDS and HIV.

On the day of the Jan. 31 protest, the group’s Jeremy Saunders explained that they would like Cuomo, a more moderate Democrat, to push harder for issues, including an expanded millionaires’ tax and the money for legal services.

“We don’t want to be harsh on the governor,” Saunders said.

He said Cuomo backs keeping an income tax surcharge on all New Yorkers who earn more than a million dollars. But the group and some other Democrats want more and higher income tax brackets for people making more than $5 million and over $10 million, up to $100 million. They say it could pay for legal services, help house the homeless and fund better education and end inequities in public schools

Saunders said the governor uses “soaring rhetoric” but often “has not lived up to” those goals and has “watered them down” in the end.

Cuomo is pushing for an alternative plan to fund legal services, and he blames the Legislature for the lack of progress on funding housing for the homeless.

He said recently that too many taxes will cause an exodus of rich people from the state.

“The fear is that you could raise taxes so high that people leave the state,” Cuomo said Feb. 7. “I do believe there’s a tipping point.”

Cuomo’s spokesman said the groups are focusing on the wrong target and are letting their “performance art” override the “facts.”

Saunders, speaking by phone Tuesday, said there’s a much larger context for the demonstrations. He said the group has stepped up its actions since the presidential election.

He said it’s not just the win by President Donald Trump, which he fears will bring cuts to health care, but also the loss of Hillary Clinton – and with it, an end to the Clintons’ brand of Democratic politics. He said it’s been a wakeup call.

“Clintonian Democrats have long told us we need to go slower, we need to accept that we can’t win all these demands,” said Saunders, who added many on the left no longer believe that.

“To us, Cuomo represents a Clintonian-style Democrat who tells us we need to be fiscally conservative at the expense of the needs that our state has,” Saunders said.

More actions, and perhaps arrests, are expected at the Capitol in March as the April 1 budget deadline draws near.

Vocal New York has so far focused on Cuomo, but they are planning a town hall meeting Thursday in the Bronx and have invited two of the legislative leaders who represent portions of the Bronx, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate co-leader Jeff Klein.

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.