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History Legislation Update

New York State Capitol (New York Senate)

The State budget has been passed. There is light at the end of tunnel. The world is opening up. What better time to look at history-related legislation and see what has happened during the lost year! Below lower are various bills identified by their Senate number and a description. The major new one concerns the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. Some of the older ones relate to anniversaries from 1619 to Juneteenth.

S9031 American Revolution 250th Commission

This proposed bill has been in the Senate Rules Committee since October 5, 2020. Creating this Commission is a prerequisite for federal funding which will be funneled through state commissions. The bill provides detailed definition of terms and the specifications of 31 people identified by function or position for the commission. The people include

– Commissioner of the Commission
– Commissioner of the Department of Education
– President of Empire State Development plus representatives of the ten regions
– Director of New York State Military Museums
– 5 directors of heritage parks and areas
– 9 representatives of various Indian Nations
– Humanities New York
– Association of Public Historians of New York State
– Preservation League of New York State.

Responsibilities include but are not limited to:

– conduct historical, economic, and cultural studies
– conduct education programs
– make recommendations on heritage organizations, historical signs, and monuments
– protect and promote the heritage resources.

There will be federal funding and funding from the State as well one presumes. The expiration date for the Commission is December 31, 2033. That date means the last major event probably will be Evacuation Day, November 25, 2033 in lower Manhattan. Just when events in Massachusetts will be wrapping up, events in New York will be taking off. These include the Battle of Saratoga, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, Benedict Arnold, Rochambeau, and Evacuation Day. New York will be observing the 250th for years to come. What should we be doing now for the pre-July 4, 1776 250th?

S6948 400 Years African-American History Commission

As the 250th Commission heads towards likely approval at some [because it is required to obtain federal funding], it is worth considering the status of the 400 Year commission for 1619. That proposed commission has been the subject of several blogs already (Slavery Quadricentennial: The 400 Years of African-American History Commission). It was finally signed into law on February 16, 2020, about six months after the August 2019 anniversary. Apparently the now-15 Commissioners had been chosen and it was only a question of arranging the photo-op to announce the launching. We all remember what happened in March 2020. Suffice it to say the 400 Year Commission is on hiatus. The original expiry date was pushed back from June 1, 2020 to June 1, 2021 which is in a few weeks. So far there is no indication of pushing back the date again. I do have a copy of the Memorandum of Support from sponsor Senator Comrie from February 2020 when I stopped by his office in Albany. That document was marked up to shift the expiry date to June 1 2022. However the New York State Senate website still has June 1 this year so time is running out.

S8598 Juneteenth Public Holiday

This bill was signed into law last July 22, 2020, shortly after the events in Tulsa. So next month will be the first observance of it in the State as a public holiday. Whether it is a public holiday like New Year’s Day, Christmas, and Thanksgiving or like Flag Day or Lincoln’s Birthday, and George Washington’s Birthday remains to be seen. This date refers to an event in Texas and not New York.

SXXXX 1827 Bicentennial 1827 Commission

Speaking of New York, the bill I initiated and helped write for the bicentennial in 2027 of the end of slavery in New York State never made it to the Senate (1827 Freedom Bicentennial Commission Covid-19 Casualty… This Year). It appears to have been a casualty of the Covid pandemic and has vanished from sight.

It should be noted that there are other upcoming anniversaries with state-wide implications including the return of Lafayette (1824) and the Indian Citizenship Act (1924) worthy of remembrance and celebration. These are in addition the bicentennial of the building of the Erie Canal (ongoing, culminating in 2025) and the centennial of the New York State Council of Parks created by legislation adopted on April 18, 1924.

S3951 Civic Education Fund

This bill was vetoed on December 13, 2019. I respectfully submit that given the insurrection on January 6, 2021, there is a desperate need for civics education in the state and the country. There is an urgent need to revisit the issue of civics in the school curriculum.

By coincidence, as I am writing this blog, I received an email from the Preservation League of New York State containing Preservation updates on State legislation. I include two bills below.

Support for Legislation Relating to Operations and Preservation of the National Historic Landmark New York State Canal System Memorandum of Support A.7044 (Buttenschon)/S.5958 (May) 

We commend the New York Power Authority and New York State Canal Corporation for their ongoing restoration, maintenance, and stewardship of our National Historic Landmark canal system. This bill supports their work while providing important consistency for those who use the canal, whether for recreation, tourism, or commercial purposes.

Read our support letter here.

Support to Make Mandatory Quarterly Meetings of the Canal Recreationway Commission
Memorandum of Support A.7045 (Buttenschon)/S.5959 (May)

The Canal Recreationway Commission currently meets subject to the call of the chairperson. By setting a regular quarterly meeting schedule, this bill will establish consistency and give the Commission the tools to focus on important future planning efforts to support our Canal System and chart a new path forward, supporting our National Historic Landmark Canal System’s ability to leverage the economic benefits of tourism, recreation, and commercial use now and into the future.

Read our support letter here.

This brief review of some history-related legislation shows that the time of the advocacy hibernation is over and the history community needs to think about how to organize for legislative action and what action it would like to see.

Sex and the New York State Constitution

Bear Mountain Bridge (courtesy of



Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River connecting the Westchester County on the east and Orange County on the west has been definitively identified as the dividing line between upstate and downstate New York. The source of this positive marker has been traced to the Bear Mountain compact. People may not be familiar with the Bear Mountain compact, so let me repeat the description provided recently in The New York Times in an article entitled “Sex Crime laws Rife with Sexism” (10/22/17):

Landmark legislation around sex crimes was unlikely to have taken shape in the New York State Legislature at the start of the millennium. For years, mostly male lawmakers and those in their orbit clung to a secret agreement known as the Bear Mountain compact, in which affairs and assignations with young staff members and interns occurring north of the Bear Mountain Bridge weren’t talked about in New York City and other home districts.

So there you have it. Sex crimes north of the Bear Mountain Bridge such as in Albany are not to be discussed south of the Bear Mountain Bridge. Legislators from Long Island, New York City, Rockland, and parts of Orange and Westchester counties were given a free pass by the state legislature to act north of the Bear Mountain Bridge in ways that would be illegal south of the Bear Mountain Bridge if anyone found out about it.

So who said the New York State Legislature is dysfunctional? Here the legislature was quite capable of resolving a pressing issue of great importance to the well- being of the state. Please remember that the next time you are driving over the Bear Mountain Bridge. Perhaps a state history marker could be placed there in recognition of this important role in New York State history. Perhaps the Bear Mountain Bridge should become a designated Path through History site.

This example of dysfunction New York at work highlights why the state desperately needs a constitutional convention and why there isn’t even a remote chance that it would do any good and probably would be dysfunctional if one were held. By now people should be aware that every 20 years under the existing state constitution, the voters in the state are asked to vote on whether or not to convene a constitutional convention. Certainly the prophets of apocalyptic doom have vehemently proclaimed the message of catastrophe if the heinous constitutional convention were to be held. And as we know from the recent presidential election scaring people works.

The upcoming vote on the convention is separate from the vote which can occur in any election on amendments to the constitution. So for example, this year in addition to voting on whether or not to convene a convention, we also are voting on an amendment on whether or not crooked state politicians can be stripped of their state pension once convicted. The very fact that such an amendment is needed is proof positive that a desperately-needed convention if convened in dysfunctional New York is doomed to failure.

The New York State constitution is not like the state constitutions of other states or the federal government. At over 50,000 words is resembles more of a book than a typical constitution like the federal one which is available in pocket-size versions. The constitution of dysfunctional New York is said to be twice the average length of the constitutions of other states and seven times the length of the federal constitution. In other words, it is the exact type of bloated document one would expect from a dysfunctional state.

At a meeting I attended months ago about the upcoming vote, one presenter claimed that approximately 16,000 words of the document were obsolete. He was referring to amendments or clauses that were time specific (World War II is over now!) or irrelevant (a popular example not necessarily in the constitution but to illustrate the point would be calling for notifications to be sent by telegram). What is striking about these obsolete sections is that they are non-political. What political party, politician, special interest group, or professional do-gooder is in favor of cluttering up the document with irrelevant obsolete material? Why hasn’t the state legislature taken the lead and simply pruned to the document of the clutter in the upstairs attic or the downstairs basement? Because we are a dysfunctional state, that’s why. If the state government was capable of providing leadership We the People of New York State, the need for a constitutional convention would be reduced.

Another 15,000 words (perhaps there is some overlap with the 16,000 obsolete words) are devoted to the state judicial system. Apparently according to an editorial in the local paper, dysfunctional New York State has 11 different trial-level courts and various appellate courts. How many does California, which is twice our size, have and how many words in its state constitution are devoted to it? Does anyone think that if one was designing a judicial system from scratch that the result would be anything even close to mess that has accumulated over the years through additions to the state constitution? Again, even without a constitutional convention, the state government has the option to take a leadership position in amending the state constitution to create a more streamlined judicial system. Once again, it hasn’t. It simply doesn’t have the ability to do so.

Speaking of dysfunction, some words of wisdom coincidentally appeared in an article entitled “Build Better, Smarter, Faster” by Denise Richardson, Executive Director, General Contractors Association of New York (City & State New York). Her article begins with:

Every primer on effective management cautions against corporate silos.

She then contrasts what has happened in the real world with what hasn’t happened in our state government.

Thanks to technology, managing a construction project has undergone a literal revolution, yet public infrastructure projects seem to remain captive to another era. To begin the demolition of cost-inducing silos requires a reinvention of agency culture which can only be dictated by top-down directives.

In dysfunctional New York, there is zero chance that the state government can get its act together to produce an effective productive organization. It is a monopoly and has no incentive “to build better, smarter, faster.” No one goes to work for the state government because their goal in life is to improve the bureaucratic operations of the state. In private practice, one can boost a career by building better, smarter, faster, not so in government organizations. You might think that a more productive government means better delivery of services to the general public but that is of no priority.

Speaking of cost-wasting silos within the government, how about spending off the books? I wish I was versed in the ways the state government spends taxpayer money off the books outside the normal legislative process, but I am not. Suffice it say, our state government is quite capable of borrowing all the money it wants without having to go through a public referendum. So even though periodically there are revenue proposals on the ballot, that does not mean that all state borrowings are.

Therefore should a constitutional conventional be held?

Jim Snider, whom I first meet when I became aware of the upcoming vote, advocates on behalf of the convention by asking the question: “Do you trust New Yorkers? Then trust the constitutional convention?” He has raised the exact right issue although the correct answer is exactly opposite to what he wants. No, New Yorkers do not trust New Yorkers and therefore do not trust the constitutional convention. It doesn’t matter how dysfunctional New York State is now, a constitutional convention is not an opportunity for We the People of New York State to get our act together; it is a guaranteed certainty that the result will be even worse. True even if a convention is held, We the People would still have the opportunity and obligation to vote on any changes the convention proposed. The convention cannot pass laws, it can only recommend changes which still would have to be ratified by the people. So why go through all this effort on the oft chance that something better will result? And will New Yorkers even control the convention or will outside money buy and sell the convention delegates? How about in-state money? In short, We the People of New York do not trust each other and do not trust the political process. We are not capable of a constitutional convention that will benefit the people of the state, therefore we should not have one. Maybe New Yorkers in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were capable of holding a state constitutional convention , but we are not today in the 21st century. That’s why we don’t even teach state conventions in the schools. No need to waste time on them.

So while dysfunctional New York continues to wallow in its dysfunctionality, that does not mean other states will continue to stand by idly while we make a mess of things. Consider the current proposed tax cut. One item under debate was the reduction of the property tax deduction. The proposal caused an uproar in expensive states like dysfunctional New York with a high property tax and was modified. A similar debate is occurring over the deductibility of state and local taxes where once again dysfunctional New York leads the way. Sooner or later the likelihood is that either caps will rule the day or there will be outright elimination of certain deductions critical to high-tax states. New Yorkers then may want to address why those taxes are so high in the first place.

Outside actors may have an impact on us, too. If state and local taxes become more expensive because of federal changes in their deductibility, state legislatures might come under pressure to lower taxes. (“Waiting Out the Debate on Taxes,” NYT 11/3/17)

What will that mean for the exorbitantly high education and medical expenses in dysfunctional New York compared to other states including California?

New York doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Somewhere along the line it will have to pay the piper. Our governor won’t provide any leadership. Our legislature won’t provide any leadership. And we the people know we can’t provide any leadership. The end result will be the rest of the country may be the ones to force us to get our act together. Occupy Wall Street got it all wrong. We need Wall Street to make an obscene amount of money so we can remain dysfunctional and to make an even more obscene amount next year. And let’s keep those young people and tourists coming to the Big Apple. After all who cares what happens north of the Bear Mountain Bridge?