On March 5, three weeks after 17 people were killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, New York state legislators had their standoff. State lawmakers introduced bills in response to the massacre, with Republicans emphasizing school safety measures and Democrats pushing for more gun control. Some of the bills may become law, and others won’t, as legislative leaders and the governor make deals over the coming weeks.
But among the bills, one rises above the others – at least politically – because the fate of the bill to put an armed police officer at the entrance of every New York City school may determine the balance of the state Senate.
“My bill is not about guns in general,” said state Sen. Simcha Felder, the sponsor of Senate Bill 6798A. “My bill is about having a trained, armed security guard or police officer at the entrance of every school. Our children are certainly no less valuable than cash in the Brinks truck.”
Felder pitched his bill as a commonsense action for school safety, and one that’s long overdue. All New York City public schools currently have a uniformed officer, but most are school safety agents, who are not armed. Felder introduced the legislation last session, long before the Parkland shooting reignited debates over school safety. And in fact, it’s been one of Felder’s main legislative concerns for years. Felder has been calling for funding for NYPD officers at private schools as far back as 2009, when he served in the New York City Council.
Felder is in a pivotal position as a registered Democrat who caucuses with the state Senate Republicans. Though the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference now forms a majority coalition with the Republicans and Felder, Democrats are hopeful that they can win over Felder and the IDC to form a liberal majority if Democrats can win the two open Senate seats in Westchester County and the Bronx in the April 24 special elections. The IDC has shown interest in realigning with the mainline Democrats, which means Felder could be that last, essential piece of the puzzle. And Felder seems to be tying his decision to whether or not his armed school guards bill gets support.
“Somebody asked me on the record, ‘If the governor were to get this done, would I do what he wanted?’ I think I said I’d do acrobatics for him if he got it done,” Felder told City & State.
The Brooklyn senator has been consistent on that point for months, telling The New York Times in November that his loyalty may be swayed by which party helps usher through his bill. State Senate Republicans unanimously supported the bill in a March 5 floor vote, while Democrats – including IDC members – were split. Importantly, the bill won over state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic minority leader, as well as state Sen. Jeff Klein, the IDC leader.
But securing Democratic support may be more difficult in the Assembly, where Republican Staten Island Assemblyman Ron Castorina Jr. has introduced a companion bill. Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has hesitated to bring more armed guards into schools. “More guns is not the answer and never has been,” he said in a Feb. 22 statement. “A proposal like this will only provide an illusion of safety.”
There are also serious budget concerns. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has control of the schools and the officers who would be guarding them, said last year that Felder’s bill could cost the city $1.2 billion.
“I believe wholeheartedly that it was an inflated, exaggerated politicized number coming from the mayor,” Castorina said. Even so, he added, “I don’t care what the cost is – I think that our children are just about the most important thing that we should be thinking about. … Whatever the cost is to hire 2,000 more police officers, we should do it.”
When the state Senate passed the armed guard bill, Castorina had just introduced his bill and was gathering supporters and co-sponsors – including, he hoped, some Democrats. Castorina is also trying to woo possibly the most important player in all of this, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who Castorina said was “willing to consider” the proposal he thought of as “reasonable.”
If Cuomo decides it is worth the effort, he may be able to push the Assembly to vote on the bill ahead of the April 1 state budget deadline. That way, it could be part of closed-door negotiations between Cuomo and legislative leaders.
But political consultant John McArdle, a former state Senate Republican aide, isn’t sure Heastie could be swayed to support a bill he doesn’t believe in simply because of the politics. “It certainly would not make it any easier to get a budget adopted if this issue and other nonbudget issues are thrown into the mix,” McArdle said.
Cuomo has traditionally been concerned with passing an on-time budget, and the fear of missing the deadline may push back the timeline of Felder’s bill to the end of session in June. That could postpone a potential Democratic unification, but such a deal may be impossible until next session anyway, due to parliamentary rules that require more than a majority to elect a new leader.
Though state Senate Republicans have championed the bill as it’s written, Felder has said he’s willing to compromise on his bill to make it more palatable to Democrats. He wouldn’t mind putting officers in just public schools, instead of public and private schools. He wouldn’t mind some other kind of armed guard, instead of NYPD officers. As Felder put it, “I am determined to do everything humanly possible to protect our kids.”