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Democratic legislators lament minority status

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Posted: Thursday, April 3, 2014 11:32 am

According to Nassau County legislators Ellen Birnbaum (D-Great Neck) and Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) being in  the minority party of the Nassau County Legislature is not easy.

“It’s really difficult being in the minority,” Jacobs said at a meeting of the Great Neck Village Officials Administrators last Wednesday. 

Birnbaum said that as a new legislator she was warned not to have high expectations.

“I was told you won’t be able to get anything passed,” Birnbaum said. 

But, Birnbaum said, she was able to find success in at least one instance by asking Nassau County Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves, the Legislature’s top Republican, to support legislation that allowed Nassau County veterans to get discounted passes to county parks. 

“I thought, this is a bill that would benefit all of our veterans,” Birnbaum said. “I figured it would be a good idea to co-sponsor this bill.”

The law, filed last month, will allow veterans to pay a one-time fee of $25 for admission to the county’s park and recreational facilities. Veterans will have to show proof of residency every three years, as opposed to paying a fee every three years - the same pricing plan used for senior citizens in Nassau County, according to Birnbaum. 

The Legislature passed the bill into law last Monday, Birnbaum said, and although she was not able to make the motion to approve it she was able to second it.

“You, unfortunately, have to be in the majority to make a motion,” she said. 

Although Birnbaum, the former director of inter municipal coordination for the Town of North Hempstead, was able to find success with this bill, she said the idea of political gridlock was something that was new to her. 

“When I worked for the Town of North Hempstead, we knew we were all working for the town,” Birnbaum said. 

Jacobs, a former presiding officer and the longest serving legislator in the county, said she has experienced gridlock since joining the Legislature when it was formed in 1995.

An example, she said, has been her effort to get a bill on the chamber floor that would raise the legal age to buy tobacco product from 18 to 21. 

“I can’t get that bill on the floor,” she said. “[The Republicans] want to wait for the state to act.” 

The Republican’s lack of cooperation, Jacobs said, has allowed Nassau to fall behind New York City and Suffolk County, both of which have passed similar laws. 

“We don’t want to be known as the haven for smokers,” she said. 

Jacobs experienced life in the majority in 2000 when the Democrats claimed control for the first time and Jacobs became the presiding officer. 

“A betting man wouldn’t have bet we would have become the majority,” she said.

The Democrats enjoyed eight years of controlling the Legislature, Jacobs said, and had the ability to pass almost any bill they wanted. 

Jacobs said she knew the Democrats sealed their fate and lost the majority when they passed a home-energy tax in 2008. 

“We knew we lost the majority with that,” Jacobs said. “But that was what we had to do.”

When Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano signed the repeal of the same day he took his inaugural oath, Jacobs said, he made a decision that would deprive the county out of millions of dollars. 

“I turned to a Republican who was standing next to me and said ‘you know he just signed a death warrant,’” Jacobs said. 

Both Birnbaum and Jacobs said they love the job they have and, for the foreseeable future, have no plans of leaving any time soon. 

“You have to love what you do in this job,” Jacobs said. “And I have never lost that fervor.”

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