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Women's Equality Act Unfinished Business in the Legislature

The legislature left Albany last week with some unfinished business. They did not agree on New York Governor Andrews Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act, and Cuomo says at least one house should return to pass some of the bill’s provisions.

In the final days of the session, the numbers nine and 10 became key points of discussion over Governor Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act. Cuomo’s 10-point package includes an abortion rights provision that would codify into state law the protections spelled out in the US Supreme court’s Roe v Wade decision.  The other nine points deal with items like a crackdown on sexual harassment, human trafficking, and equal pay for women.

The Assembly approved Governor Cuomo’s original bill  of all ten points in one package. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver spoke just after the vote.

“We did women New Yorkers the simple honor of voting on the agenda,” Silver said. “The entire agenda.”  

The Senate, though, acted on just nine of the ten measures. Senate Republicans did not want to vote on the 10th provision, on abortion rights.  Governor Cuomo made it easier for the Senate to at least act on the other nine items, by breaking his Equality Act down into ten separate bills. The GOP even voted down a hostile amendment brought by their coalition government partners, the Independent Democrats, who tried on the final day to unsuccessfully force the measure to the floor.

Up until the final hours of the session, a coalition of women’s groups had maintained that all 10 points of the equality act needed to be approved, and that just passing the other nine was not enough.

“Vote all ten,” they chanted outside the Senate chamber.

Tracey Brooks, with Family Planning Advocates, appeared at the news conference with Speaker Silver after the Assembly approved the 10 point version, including abortion rights.

“We are not nine-tenths,” said Brooks. “Nine is not enough.”

But after the Senate passed the other nine provisions late on Friday, Brooks and others in the women’s coalition completely reversed their position. They asked the Assembly to go back and vote on the nine provisions separately so that the two houses would have matching bills.   In a statement, Family Planning Advocates said “women deserve every step forward the Legislature has the opportunity to provide them”.  The Assembly adjourned without voting.

Brooks explains why her group and others changed their tactics.

“There’s very real merit in the provisions that passed the Senate that have never seen the light of day over in that house until this year,” said Brooks.

But she added that the coalition “will not rest” until the 10th provision, on abortion rights, finally passed becomes law .  

Governor Cuomo, who had never completely ruled out accepting only the nine provisions, without the tenth, abortion rights measure, also urged the Assembly to come back. The governor, without directly criticizing the Assembly or Speaker Silver, repeated his request a few days later.

“The nine laws that we did pass really make a difference for women,” Cuomo said. “They have to become a reality and I’m sure they will.”

But not all of the women’s groups agree that it’s now the Assembly’s move. NARAL Pro Choice New York says it’s the Senate that should come back, and vote on the 10th, abortion rights provision, instead. The group’s Andrea Miller says the other nine tenets should not be separated out.

“The real question now is, will state Senators step up,” said Miller.   

And Democratic women in the Assembly also say they don’t want the abortion piece separated out from the rest of the Women’s Equality Act.  They held a news conference shortly before adjourning for the summer.

“Nine is not enough, we need all ten, and we won’t settle for less,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee. “That’s our message.”

Assembly Speaker Silver was called down to a meeting with Governor Cuomo, along with the Democratic women in the Assembly, shortly before session ended.

Afterward, he said he would not rule out a return to vote on the other nine provisions of the Women’s Equality Act separately, and would continue talking with Governor Cuomo.

“The day is not magic,” Silver said.  

The groups in the women’s coalition are meeting in New York City Thursday to try to repair any rifts over whether all ten provisions must be voted on, or whether nine are enough for now. One thing both the political arm  of Family Planning Advocates and NARAL agree on – they will make abortion rights an election issue among Republican Senators who do not vote for the bill before the 2014 races.