By Tom Precious
ALBANY – It’s been years of making a pitch, but Buffalo tonight has moved a major step forward in its bid to take over the state's work of adjudicating traffic violations that occur within city limits.
A measure to let the city run its own traffic adjudication system, approved by the state Senate Wednesday, sailed through the Assembly tonight without any debate.
The state has been unwilling for years to give up the adjudication responsibilities – and the money it brings.
But an amendment to the long-stalled bill called for the city to take over the work – and keep the money – so long as the move does not cost the state any lost funds in its current fiscal year that ends next March 31.
For motorists, there could be an extra benefit: plea bargaining. The legislation notes that the state handles traffic violations for the city without plea bargaining opportunities.
The new bill, which still needs approval from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to become law, changes that legal maneuvering with the switch-over to a city-controlled traffic adjudication system. The bill will not take effect until the city’s 2014-15 fiscal year, and it is already counting on $3.2 million from adjudicating its own tickets.
The bill's sponsors, Buffalo's Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Republican, and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat, argued in a bill memo that the current system preventing plea bargaining is unfair because that option is afforded motorists getting tickets in all other cities, towns and villages in Western New York.
They say violators could be given the option of attending a traffic safety course and, as a result, not receive any additional points on their license. In turn, that could help keep insurance rates down, they argue.
The bill dates back to at least 2007, according to a legislative memo, and has been requested year after year by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.
By Robert J. McCarthy
As expected, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has announced his support for the re-election of Jeremy J. Zellner as Erie County Democratic chairman this year.
Poloncarz made the announcement Wednesday evening before a gathering of town chairmen.
“Jeremy is committed to supporting candidates who embrace true Democratic Party values and he is a real advocate for creating a better community,” Poloncarz said. “I look forward to voting for him again for another term as chair of the committee.”
Zellner has always enjoyed solid support from the Poloncarz wing of the party, but could still receive a challenge for the chairmanship. Cheektowaga Democratic Chairman Frank C. Max Jr. has indicated he is interested in running for county chairman again in September, but has made no official announcement.
By Robert J. McCarthy
Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams said Thursday she will not enter the Democratic primary for the State Senate seat now held by Timothy M. Kennedy.
"I have a lot of respect for Sen. Tim Kennedy and I certainly do not want to run aganist him," she said. "I simply don't have an interest at this time."
Miller-Williams did not entirely close the door on a Senate candidacy this year, acknowledging that some Democrats continue to urge her to run. But she also said she does not anticipate changing her mind.
Kennedy is already facing a primary challenge from Legislator Betty Jean Grant, and some observers say the incumbent would benefit by facing two black opponents who might be expected to diffuse the African-American vote in the district.
By Tom Precious
ALBANY -- The head of the Assembly education committee, who helped negotiate the teacher evaluation deal that appears to be coming together this afternoon, will likely lead officials in New York to eventually re-examine the whole Common Core program.
Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat, said the temporary time-out in the Common Core program to use the new standardized tests as at least 20 percent of a teacher's performance evaluation "will spark another round'' of talks about the Common Core standards. She noted the debate over teacher evaluations in New York comes a day after the governor of Louisiana moved to end his state's Common Core program.
The governor this afternoon introduced a program bill to give a two-year delay -- during the the 2013/14 "and/or" 2014/15 school years -- to the use of standardized tests based on the Common Core curriculum as part of teacher evaluations in school districts across New York. The same break was given to students -- in the form of the tests basically not counting against their promotion or graduation -- back in March.
Nolan and the governor's office were not yet officially calling it a three-way deal today on the teacher evaluation, especially since the matter shortly after 1pm was being discussed in a closed-door meeting by Senate Republicans.
But sources said the Assembly is certain to pass the bill. "It gives the teachers the breathing room we gave to students during the state budget,'' Nolan said in an interview this afternoon.
The Common Core, already dismissed as a failure by many parents across the state, targets English and math skills in grades three through eight.
By Tom Precious
ALBANY -- A source involved in the medical marijuana negotiations described terms of the tentative deal.
It calls for no smoking, only oil-based and other liquid-type sales of the product to qualified patients.
The tentative deal also calls for five licenses to be granted that will dispense the drug at a maximum of 20 locations around the state. There is a seven-year sunset to the measure, up from the five-year pilot-type program Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed.
Critics said the looming deal will end up forcing patients who want to smoke marijuana to simply turn to the black market.
By Tom Precious
ALBANY -– As negotiators try one last time to nail down a medical marijuana bill, here are some thoughts from a drug distribution expert that haven’t been making the headlines.
The source is Jody Miller, who owns 4Front Consulting Group in Buffalo, which advises everyone from pharmaceutical companies, grocery chains, insurance companies and university hospitals around the country on drug distribution and dispensing matters.
Miller has been prodding officials in Albany to worry more about quality of the medical marijuana product -– done through rigorous testing like any other drug -– and less about issues like diversion of the drug to people not eligible to receive medical marijuana under a system advocates envision.
“To think diversion is important is to think that the drug is not readily available today,’’ Miller says. “Go to any high school and challenge any 16-year-old to bring you one joint or one bottle of whiskey by 5 p.m. They will have to go steal the whiskey from their parents’ cabinet but will be back with a joint in 30 minutes,’’ he said.
With the medical marijuana program envisioned in New York by lawmakers, getting access to the drug will require a number of hurdles that, he said, will greatly limit the availability of medical marijuana and make it to costly for diversion because of the state tax that will be paid by users.
“Diversion is the least of their problem,’’ he said.
But Miller warned that officials need to be focusing on how to ensure marijuana sold in a medicinal program is safe and that it is tested to ensure the products don’t possess mold spores or pesticides or other dangerous compounds. Miller has been taking his concerns to the offices of lawmakers and officials in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.
“The issue should be patient safety and ensuring the product they are inhaling or ingesting are free from all the harmful aspects that could compromise patient safety,’’ he said. Officials need to treat medical marijuana like any other medication in the drug supply system. That means careful labeling with warnings -– such as not mixing marijuana with alcohol or that marijuana will make users drowsy or that they should not drive -– as well as counseling if a patient has questions about the drug, as is available at pharmacies now for all drug purchases. He said the state also needs to ensure there is a recall system in place, like with all drugs sold, in case a batch of medical marijuana turns out to be harmful in some way, and that marijuana be dispensed in child-proof packaging.
“If we’re going to tell a patient it is OK to use, safety standards need to be robust,’’ said Miller, whose clients include marijuana growers. He has done work on the issue in California, Colorado and other states.
Without offering to take sides in the debate over what form should be permitted in New York, Miller noted that extract-based marijuana, as opposed to the form in which it can be smoked, will be more expensive. He said it takes 10 pounds of flowers and cuttings to make one pound of extract.
If medical marijuana is legalized in New York, Miller said it is uncertain if the state will be worth the investment by the kinds of marijuana growers and distributors that could create jobs and produce some economic development benefits. That will be known in the legislation’s details if there is a deal, he said.
“I’m just trying to educate everybody to say if you do it and call it a medicine you are beholden to the public to treat it like a medicine, which means it must have patient safety above all else,’’ he said. “Otherwise, just make it recreational and forget all this stuff and then it’s 'buyer beware.' ’’
Strict patient safety rules, including testing of products, should be what negotiators are spending their hours on debating at the Capitol, he added.
“We do this every day with other medicines far, far more toxic than this herb that’s been around for 3,000 years. And, under the program they are considering now for New York, it will still be easier to get oxycontin than medical marijuana.’’
Miller's comments came shortly before lawmakers a short while ago emerged from a meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to say they are close to a medical marijuana deal.
By Robert J. McCarthy
It didn't take long for 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino to express his enthusiasm for this year's GOP candidate on Wednesday, especially when Rob Astorino aimed criticism at Albany leadership.
Paladino called it a "watershed" moment Wednesday when word surfaced that Astorino aide William F.B. O'Reilly had referred to Senate Republican Leader Dean G. Skelos as the "prison punk" of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. That followed a press release in which Skelos lauded state progress in improving its credit rating.
O'Reilly later said Albany leadership was to blame for much of the state's problems.
In Buffalo on Wednesday, Astorino said he disagreed with O'Reilly's wording but not his sentiment.
“I don’t think Bill’s comments were appropriate and I told him so,” he said, quickly adding the state has to change its way of doing business or the population exodus from Western New York will continue.
“Inside the granite walls of the Capitol, sometimes they forget we have people who are struggling all over,” he added. “I don’t agree with the analogy, but most New Yorkers feel our state is going in the wrong direction."
Paladino, originally lukewarm over Astorino because the county executive failed to echo his criticism of Skelos and Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb, proved more than on board with the new candidate on Wednesday.
“I think this is the beginning of the cleansing of the Republican Party,” he said. “[Astorino] could not do anything better in getting his name out there in the state than taking on these entrenched Albany parasites. I fully support him.”
By Tom Precious
ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders this afternoon announced their deal, reported in this morning's Buffalo News, on 11 pieces of legislation they hope will reduce an epidemic of heroin and prescription opiate abuse in some areas of New York.
Here are the numbers, by county, over the past 10 years, of people seeking treatment for addictions to those drugs: Download Heroin & Rx Drug Treatment in New York State.
By Tom Precious
ALBANY -- The full announcement on the deal struck last night by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders is expected to be announced early this morning.
But here are some details -- admittedly lacking in specifics at this early (for Albany) hour -- in the 11-bill package:
1: expanded insurance coverage for patients going to health care providers who specialize in substance abuse services. Insurers also must continue providing coverage for addiction services during appeals process. Requires NY insurers to comply with federal substance abuse parity laws.
2: A new public awareness campaign to be run, using social and mass media outlets, by Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services and the Department of Health.
3: two demonstration programs dealing with long-term recovery programs and case management. One calls for creation of new model of detox and transitional services. Designed for those needing help but not facing need for serious medical care. Idea is to reduce reliance on ER visits. Second demonstration program creates Wraparound Services Demonstration Program, with various services (social services, job help, transportation, legal services, etc) continuing for nine months to try to prevent relapse problems for people with addiction problems.
4: Education campaign re: use of naxolone on overdose victims. Naloxone kits must include card with step-by-step instructions first responder or others take following administration of drug to victim, along with information for victim on seeking treatment and support services.
5: Allows parents of a minor with drug addiction to get assessment of problem under Persons in Need of Supervision services, opening door for access to variety of help programs.
6: new addiction awareness programs -- on an "age appropriate basis'' -- in junior and senior high schools.
7: strengthening of penalties for criminal sale of controlled substances by health care providers and pharmacists. Makes the crime a Class C felony.
8: Allows state narcotics enforcement bureau at Health Department to directly obtain criminal histories of people they are investigating for possible illegal diversion of prescription drugs.
By Tom Precious
NEWS ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF
ALBANY -- The sponsors of a bill legalizing medical marijuana made the midnight deadline to introduce a new version of the bill -- the fifth -- that bows to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on some of his ideas, but rejects a number of concerns he has publicly raised with the effort.
Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried amended their bill to, as Cuomo suggested, further limit the diseases or conditions for which the drug can be dispensed. Gone from the new bill is post-concussion syndrome, lupus and diabetes. But they keep intact the ability of patients to smoke the drug -- Cuomo wanted an oil-based or other liquid type form of the drug being available -- but the bill bans smoking in public places and, as previous versions, makes it illegal to dispense marijuana in a smoking form to anyone under age 21.
After Cuomo Monday characterized the lawmakers' bill as overly generous when it comes to how much marijuana could go to patients in a 30-day period, Savino and Gottfried, in their new bill version, reduced from two and one-half ounces to two ounces the amount of marijuana that a doctor can prescribe to a patient in a one-month period. There appears also to be some new maneuvering room by the state health department, which will draft the regulations to implement the bill if it is passed and signed into law.
Lawmakers also did not go along with Cuomo's call for a five-year sunset on the law. Savino and Gottfried both said that idea is unworkable and would serve to only keep private marijuana manufacturers from coming to New York to invest in the infrastructure to produce the drug.
The bill is now in the midst of a three-day aging process, meaning it will be live for a vote on Thursday, the scheduled end of session. If there is no deal between now and then by Cuomo and legislative leaders on a three-way deal, the key question becomes: will Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate co-leader Dean Skelos be willing to incur the governor's likely anger and let the bill out onto the floor for a vote? If it passes, that would put Cuomo, in an election year, in the position of possibly vetoing a bill that patients with cancer and AIDS have been lobbying to get passed and has attracted the backing of additional Republican lawmakers and the incumbent Democrat -- Eric Schneiderman -- and Republican challenger -- John Cahill -- for the state attorney general's post.
Some advocates are convinced Cuomo is doing his best to kill the effort, while the governor has maintained he is supportive of the idea but that there are law enforcement and other concerns to be addressed if the state is to begin the complex task of regulating a system of growing, transporting, and dispensing marijuana to potentially thousands of patients. Advocates say the way the new bill is crafted that New York would be the most heavily regulated of the 22 states, and the District of Columbia, that permit medical marijuana.
Sources said Savino and Gottfried held talks last night with the governor's office, but the bill they introduced before midnight cannot be called -- at this point anyway -- a three-way deal.