By HANNAN ADELY
In one of the most closely watched state Senate races in New York State, Riverdale attorney Lorraine Coyle Koppell, a Democrat, has attacked incumbent Guy Velella, a Republican, on his record on issues like education spending, health care and gun control. But it is precisely those issues that Velella is trumpeting as he battles for another term, pointing to legislation he has passed in those areas.
Koppell has repeatedly criticized Velella for failing to support gun control measures until he began to gear up for reelection. He recently voted for legislation to establish a ballistic identification databank, a gun trafficking and tracer program, and a minimum age for firearm possession.
Velella, though, said he has always been an advocate for gun control, and pointed to a bill he sponsored in 1991 to require a waiting period to purchase guns and to ban the sale and possession of assault weapons. Velella also secured funding to hire a special assistant district attorney to prosecute crimes committed with firearms.
Velella seems most proud of his record on health care. In a recent interview, he cited his authorship of a maternity law which requires mandatory coverage by insurance companies of 48-hour hospital stays for new mothers. He also wrote the Community Rating and Enrollment Act, which requires insurance companies to accept all applicants, regardless of their state of health. Velella also voted for a recent bill that would let patients access physician and hospital profiles, including disciplinary and malpractice records.
In an interview with the Norwood News, Velella also took credit for increasing education aid to New York City, which now gets a disproportionate share of state education dollars according to its student population. "We have moved the education aid formula closer and closer each year," Velella said. "Many years ago it was much more disproportionate."
Behind the Bills
But some Democrats and issue advocates say these votes tell only part of the story. Gun control advocates in particular complain Velella has been too soft on firearm restrictions. "Velella voted for two bills we were against," said Barbara Hohlt, chair of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, an advocacy group. "One made it easier for people with an upstate county permit to get a gun and allows anyone with a permit to carry firearms, to carry in New York City. The second made it easier to get 'carry gun' licenses."
Velella said the permit law only reciprocated the practice of other counties which recognize New York City permits.
One of Hohlt's biggest gripes was that several gun control bills never saw the light of day because they were held up by Velella and his colleagues in the Republican Senate majority. For instance, Velella voted against motions in 1994 and 2000 to discharge an assault weapons ban bill from committee, which would have allowed the full Senate a vote on the issue, even though he sponsored such legislation in 1991.
Similarly, health advocates complain that for two years, the Women's Health and Wellness Act, which would provide early osteoporosis screening for women and require insurance companies to cover birth control prescriptions, has been bottled up in the Senate. And although Velella is a sponsor, he voted with Republicans to keep the bill from reaching the floor.
State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat and Velella foe who encouraged Koppell to run, said it is a common practice for senators to sponsor a bill, so they can get bragging rights at election time, but later vote with their party against discharging the vote. "[Sponsoring a bill] doesn't mean anything," he said. "Anyone in the Senate can sponsor any legislation. What's significant is, are you working to get the bill passed? Are you just sitting back and waiting to take credit when it's done?"
Velella stressed that a vote to discharge is "not a vote on the merits of the bill," and that it takes time for consensus to emerge on both sides of the aisle. He said both Democrats as well as Republicans use such motions to embarrass the other party when passage of legislation is clearly not forthcoming, and cited Koppell's husband, former assemblyman and state attorney general Oliver Koppell, to prove his point.
"I'm not going to vote for motions to discharge that accomplish nothing and are merely a tool of the minority to embarrass the majority," Velella said. "That's exactly what Oliver Koppell did and said when he was an assemblyman in the majority. Motions to discharge are good for press releases, and that's all they accomplish."
On the issue of education funding, Schneiderman admitted that the ratio for funding for New York City has improved over the last five years. But he said the Democrats have had to trade for it. "They [Republicans] ask for more money for upstate prison construction, more money for upstate highways and roads. Those are the things we have to trade to get even a little more equity."
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