ALBANY – For several years, Assembly Democrats have linked passage of a multiple-bill package aimed at women’s equality issues to an expansion of abortion rights in New York, a measure that Senate Republicans have vowed not to enact.
On Monday, the Assembly blinked, breaking the link and starting to approve individual components of the package, including several measures targeting the growing problem of human trafficking in laborers and sex workers.
No one knows how many people – many of them undocumented immigrants brought against their will or under false pretenses – were trafficking victims in the last couple of years during Albany’s political dance.
Assembly officials estimated that 17,000 people are brought to the United States each year and enter the sex trade, involuntary servitude and other aspects of human exploitation.
The bill that the Assembly passed, 141-0, on Monday matches one already approved in this session and therefore is ready to be sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his signature. It includes provisions to strengthen penalties for labor and sex trafficking and creates a new defense for prostitutes who are deemed victims of such exploitation.
“Today, ‘people are not for sale’ is not just a tag line. … Today, New York is taking a serious step to eradicate commercial sexual exploitation,” said Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, sponsor of the measure.
The advancement of the bill came after considerable personal lobbying by victims of human trafficking. Shandra, who would only give her first name and who said she was brought from Indonesia to be trafficked in the sex trade, told reporters Monday that the agreed-to bill is “a great step forward to make New York’s anti-trafficking (provision) the strongest law in the country.”
Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said the Assembly will now pass components of the Women’s Equality Act in pieces to end the political logjam that has blocked approval. The Assembly and Cuomo wanted the full package, but in the last couple of years, the Senate made clear its interest in all components of the legislation except for the expansion of abortion.
Advocates of the abortion bill said it merely makes New York mirror federal law and codifies the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court decision is ever overturned. Opponents say the legislation expands current abortion access, leading to additional late-term abortions in New York.
Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, commended Heastie for breaking up the WEA and moving first on the human trafficking bill, saying he put “progress ahead of politics.” He noted that Heastie’s decision came after two years of calls by Senate Republicans to move the WEA bills – minus the abortion legislation.
Other components address everything from sexual harassment, pay equity and electronic orders of protection to stronger laws against discrimination based on a person’s family status or pregnancy.
“With new leadership brings a new day,” Lauren Hersh, director of anti-trafficking advocacy at the Sanctuary for Families, said of Heastie’s decision to break apart the WEA and pass those components the Senate has agreed to approve.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, at a Capitol event on a separate topic Monday, told reporters that the Assembly previously had asked Cuomo to back efforts to keep the WEA package intact, including the abortion expansion, as a way to pressure the Senate. “But elections have consequences, and the Democrats don’t control the Senate and don’t see fit to include that (abortion) plank at this time,” Hochul said. Cuomo is looking at the developments, she said.
Cuomo has also supported breaking out the individual bills. On Monday, after passage of the human-trafficking bill, he said the measure will target “an injustice that simply cannot be allowed to continue in New York.”
Melissa DeRosa, a Cuomo spokeswoman, said Cuomo introduced the WEA as a single package and as individual bills. “That’s been consistent. The only thing that’s changed is the dynamics of the Assembly,” she said in a statement.
The Senate passed a human-trafficking bill in 2013 and 2014, and it was the first measure passed in the current session.
The abortion rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice New York, said Monday that it supported passage of the human-trafficking measure by the Assembly but that it is counting on the Assembly “once again demonstrating its unqualified commitment” by also passing the abortion rights expansion measure.
Abortion opponents were hailing the Assembly’s move as an end to any serious push on the abortion issue this year. The Chiaroscuro Group called the Assembly’s decision to unlink the abortion bill from other WEA provisions “a major vote for moderation and common sense” in New York.
The Assembly bill approved Monday also would increase penalties for patronizing minors for prostitution and creating a civil right of action to allow victims of human trafficking to sue for damages.
Provisions in other bills approved by the Assembly on Monday but not backed yet by the Senate include requiring a state agency to provide safe houses for victims of human trafficking and establishing a 24-hour, state-run hotline for reporting suspicion of human trafficking.