NEW YORK—With the brunt of the flu season hitting New York City, workers who are not given paid sick days are having to make tough decisions in order to stay at home and recover—lose out on income, or worse, risk losing their jobs.
Legislation to guarantee workers paid time off has been sitting in City Council since early 2010, despite having 37 sponsors, and the support of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and many government watchdog groups. Speaker Christine Quinn has continued to oppose the bill, arguing that with the harsh economic climate, the impact on businesses would be too great.
Council member Gale Brewer, lead sponsor of the bill, has continued to champion for the legislation saying she is hoping to negotiate with the speaker to get the bill passed. Despite its support, it appears the legislation will be blocked by Quinn, unless the economy makes a dramatic turnaround this year.
With the legislation at a stalemate, Brewer could evoke the power of sponsor’s privilege (rule 7.100), which allows the lead sponsor of a bill to petition the chairperson of the committee for a meeting. If given a favorable report, the sponsor can then force a vote at the next stated council meeting. The move is highly risky however, as it directly challenges the speaker, who is in charge of doling out discretionary money, as well as being someone a council member needs on side when introducing bills.
With the City Council legislative session coming to an end this year, this rarely used, risky power, may be the only way for the 19 term-limited council members—including Brewer—to get their bills through before the legislation is stamped “Sine Die,” or dead.
Sense of Urgency
Following two years of no movement on a bill, which would require all new taxis to be accessible to people with disabilities, Council member G. Oliver Koppell decided to take the risk and evoke his power of sponsor’s privilege.
“Since traditionally bills don’t come up for a vote without the speaker’s support, the only way to get the bill to come out on the floor so it can be voted on by the membership is to force the issue,” Koppell said by phone Thursday.
Koppell began to feel the sense of urgency on two fronts. He knows Nissan Motor Co. will soon begin to build the “taxi of tomorrow,” the NV200, which is not wheelchair accessible. Second, his third and final term will end at the close of the year, meaning he will not have an opportunity to reintroduce the bill with the next session.
Koppell said he had been warned by colleagues not to use sponsor’s privilege, because it would upset the speaker. He said it is seen as a challenge to the speaker.
Koppell said the Speakers Office contacted him and was not happy he had used sponsor’s privilege, however he has no regrets and would do it again because he believes the power is there to be used.
“Having this device of the sponsor’s privilege to call for a vote is an important aspect of the legislative process,” Koppell said. “I don’t think it should be evoked willy-nilly but I think it is a protection that is there.”
Koppell is not out of the woods yet. The chair of the transportation committee, James Vacca, has 60 days to meet and another 30 to have a hearing. If the bill is reported favorably, and the council does not vote within 45 days, Koppell may move for an immediate consideration at the next council meeting.
Despite sponsor’s privilege’s best intentions to remove power from the speaker, council members may have to overcome another roadblock. It is possible for another member of the committee to introduce a nearly identical bill and have that one voted on in committee. The speaker could then choose not to bring the new bill up for a vote. With a new lead sponsor—one who will not evoke sponsor’s privilege—both pieces of legislation would remain stagnant.
Tony Avella, who is now a state senator, ran into this problem twice when he evoked sponsor’s privilege on a bill that would allow multiple pets, and a horse-drawn carriage bill. Avella believes Quinn, who was also the speaker during his tenure, encouraged other members to introduce similar legislation in order to side step his sponsor’s privilege.
“It would relieve the committee members of having to vote against the issue,” Avella said. “This way she protected her members, and at the same time, still killed the bill.”
Koppell is aware of the risk, but believes with such strong and highly supported legislation, he has a chance. “I want the cabs to be accessible. I don’t care if my name is on the bill,” Koppell said.
Brewer, who is running for Manhattan borough president, said she does not want to take the risk of sponsor’s privilege yet. “I really want this bill,” Brewer said Wednesday night. “If it goes to a vote, you may end up losing on the floor.”
Brewer is running out of time to make her decision regarding sponsor’s privilege. When the ball drops on Times Square on Dec. 31, 2013, the paid sick leave bill, as well as any other bills introduced by term limited council members, will lose their sponsor and forever be stamped “Sine Die.”
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