A tale of two counties -- and their laws

Legislators Norma Gonsalves and Kevan Abrahams during the

Legislators Norma Gonsalves and Kevan Abrahams during the budget vote in Mineola, New York. (Nov. 20, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

In 2012, the Nassau Legislature passed 23 local laws. One Suffolk legislator nearly proposed that many by himself.

The differences between Long Island's two county legislatures were on full display this past year, with Suffolk passing 52 local laws (items that require filing with the state), more than double Nassau's output.

In the past five years, Suffolk has averaged more than 50 local laws, ranging from creating an animal abuse offender registry to instituting one of the nation's first bans of a harmful chemical used in retail receipts. Nassau has averaged about 21 local laws since 2007, regardless of which party was in power.

While many of both counties' local laws are procedural -- tweaking their existing charters or administrative codes to adjust fees -- experts say the difference in productivity between Nassau and Suffolk is reflective of their distinct political and geographic makeups.

"We didn't call it the 'Wild East,' for nothing," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "The Suffolk legislature has always been more freewheeling, and if I had to hazard a guess as to why, I think the legislators there feel much more independent because they're not bumping into each other the way they are in Nassau.

"The districts are spread further apart and have more discreet, unrelated issues."

Levy said Nassau County operates from a more "top-down" approach, with the county executive generally setting the agenda for lawmakers more than in Suffolk. But Nassau legislative leaders dismissed the notion that their Suffolk counterparts are more active.

Nassau Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) contends that many Suffolk bills perform administrative functions or are intended mainly to send a message to Albany or Washington. He said Nassau "tries to pass bills that are sensible, but also mainstream and modern."

In 2002, Nassau became the first in the state to prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants, and in 2009 was among the first to require chain restaurants to post calorie information on their menus.

"Our priority in Nassau is not raising property taxes, so that is where most of our focus is directed," added Matt Fernando, spokesman for the legislature's presiding officer, Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow).

In Suffolk, a handful of the 18 legislators typically introduce the bulk of local laws. In 2012, no one -- including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone -- proposed more local laws than Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore).

They included efforts to reform the budget process -- requiring votes on tax levies before Election Day, and offering local businesses a public comment period when changing fees that impact them. Neither has passed, and only two of the other 16 laws Cilmi introduced in 2012 were adopted by year's end. But he's not discouraged.

"Whether or not they pass, I believe it's important for the sake of honest debate and for the sake of the constituents who elected me to fight for these things," Cilmi said.

Of the 52 local laws passed by Suffolk legislators in 2012, about half were procedural items that originated with Bellone or Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook). Besides them, no active lawmaker passed more local laws than freshman Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), with five.

He is most proud of a ban on smoking in county parks and beaches, which was narrowly approved, Spencer said. Next year will provide more challenges, as Spencer, a physician, is drafting a controversial bill to prohibit sale of energy drinks to people younger than 19, which is likely to meet fierce resistance from beverage industry lobbyists.

"I'm not trying to pass laws," Spencer said. "I'm trying to show that a regular businessman and doctor can get in there and work together with Democrats and Republicans and get things done. I'd like to see it happen in Washington."

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