Stalled Walczyk bills spur debate

Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, is introduced at the St. Lawrence County Conservative Party barbecue in Morristown on June 6. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

ALBANY — Every bill in the state Legislature is fair for use as political leverage, but if something fails to pass, it doesn’t mean games were played.

Two bills sponsored by Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, that would impact St. Lawrence County and the city of Ogdensburg stalled in the state Assembly this session, which ended June 10.

“I’ve been doing my job, the state Assembly should be doing theirs,” Walczyk said.

A third local bill of the assemblyman’s also failed to pass the Senate or Assembly. The measures that were not brought to the floor for a vote are home rule legislation, or bills that allow New York localities to self-govern.

Walczyk, a representative who is quick to express his honest opinion, launched an opposition campaign Jan. 15 dubbed “Kick the Crown” in response to executive overreach during the COVID-19 pandemic by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The assemblyman’s campaign’s name has ties to the New York state seal and its revolutionary past. The state seal features an image of Lady Liberty standing to the left. A crown intended to represent former king of England King George III lies at her feet.

Walczyk also paid to have a van with a three-sides digital billboard drive around the state Capitol in Albany last week to display messages from constituents aimed against the governor.

Local officials have questioned if Assembly leaders purposely stalled Walczyk’s home rule legislation in retaliation to his ongoing campaign against Cuomo.

“Just because some crackpot says something it doesn’t mean it’s true,” Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser, said in a statement Friday. “Anyone peddling this nonsense should be embarrassed.”

One of Walczyk’s stalled local bills would transfer the ownership of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to the city to return the property to the locality’s tax roll. Another would allow Ogdensburg to impose an additional sales tax rate and compensating use tax.

The tax-related measure passed the Senate last week, but died in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. Legislators did not move the bill to transfer the psychiatric center ownership out of the Governmental Operations Committee.

“I’m not sure if politics play into this, I just know a community is very dependent on this legislation being approved,” Ogdensburg Mayor Jeffrey “Mike” Skelly said Saturday. “We will have a double-digit reduction in law enforcement because it can be supplemented by the county, who is attacking our city from before I was elected.”

A third local bill of Walczyk’s would create an account for a St. Lawrence County economic development fund from New York Power Authority net earnings. It passed the Senate, but stalled in the Assembly Energy Committee.

“There’s no reason for the speaker’s office not to bring the home rule bills to the floor,” Walczyk said. “You either respect home rule or you don’t. ... We’re either a home rule state that believes the city of Ogdensburg should be able to authorize them to carry a 1 percent tax or not.”

Officials in the Office of Mental Health were hesitant to transfer ownership of the psychiatric center to the city, Walczyk said, while Assembly leadership halted the Ogdensburg tax bill, citing local disagreements over the measure between county legislators and the city.

“It’s really strange for a speaker of the Assembly to pick sides on the county versus the city ... It’s strange for them to bring that up,” Walczyk said. “I was sort of surprised by the last-minute aspect of it, especially since it’s a home-rule request.”

Walczyk dissuaded rumors bills did not pass because of his ongoing Kick the Crown campaign.

“I would say if the governor vetoed (the bills), that could have been a conclusion, but the speaker is funding impeachment investigations on that governor right now,” Walczyk said.

Cuomo has expanded spending and decision-making authority under New York’s ongoing state of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic, which first went into effect March 7, 2020. Walczyk started the campaign at the beginning of session to attract opposition to the governor’s executive overreach.

“I’d say if I brought a truck down to Albany to attack the speaker, someone could draw that conclusion,” Walczyk said of potential political retaliation against him. “The Kick the Crown campaign is more about it being a check on the executive, not about home rule legislation or legislative processes.”

Most Democratic members in the Assembly in March called on Cuomo to resign from office after a multitude of accusations against the governor came to light over the winter.

The governor’s expanded powers during the state emergency continue while he participates in a multitude of investigations by federal prosecutors, state Attorney General Letitia James and an impeachment probe of Cuomo by the state Assembly Judiciary Committee. The investigations are looking into Cuomo and his administration’s handling of COVID-19 death data in nursing homes and congregate facilities; sexual assault and harassment accusations by at least nine women; the governor potentially using state resources to publish his $5.1 million pandemic memoir book deal last year; and the structural integrity of the Gov. Mario Cuomo bridge, named for the governor’s late father.

Cuomo on Tuesday lifted nearly all state coronavirus capacity, disinfecting and additional health screening rules after 70% of New York adults received at least one vaccine dose against COVID-19, but the state of emergency and his broadened authority remain.

Representatives with Cuomo’s office have not answered repeated questions this week about why the state of emergency and the governor’s additional authority remains in effect while most other pandemic-era rules were lifted.

Walczyk finds it difficult to understand Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, and leadership’s reasoning for stalling the local measures because the bills would not change statewide policy.

“I think their answer is unacceptable,” the upstate assemblyman said. “If a member is carrying a home rule bill, then that home rule bill should be brought to the Assembly floor.

“I’m frustrated it didn’t get done this session ... but it happens,” he added. “We’re going to keep working on it.”

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