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New York senators could vote on vaccine bill next week

State Sen. Brad Hoylman, center, and Assemb. Jeffrey

State Sen. Brad Hoylman, center, and Assemb. Jeffrey Dinowtiz, right, are each sponsoring a bill that would eliminate religious exemptions for vaccines in New York. Credit: Alison Fox

Depending on who you ask, a bill that would lift New York’s religious exemption for vaccines is either stuck in the state Assembly’s health committee, with little chance of passage, or close to having enough votes to get through the committee.

In the State Senate, however, the situation seems more definitive. A Senate source told The Point Thursday that there could be a vote as early as next week – and it’s expected to pass.

The debate comes as New York grapples with a measles outbreak. There have been more than 600 cases of the measles confirmed statewide, concentrated in Brooklyn and Rockland County. New York is part of a national outbreak that includes more than 700 cases, a 25-year high, in 22 states.

The bill’s Assembly sponsor, Jeffrey Dinowitz of the Bronx told The Point on Thursday that he is “trying to round up the votes” on the committee. He needs 14 total. Committee chair Assemb. Richard Gottfried told The Point that he’d put the bill on the next committee agenda when Dinowitz says he has the votes.

“I’m close, but I’m not there yet,” Dinowitz said, although he wouldn’t say exactly how many definite “yes” votes he has. “I’m hoping, if I can line up the last votes, I think we can get it.”

But Assemb. Michaelle Solages, a member of the committee, wasn’t as hopeful.

“Currently, it doesn’t seem like there are enough votes to get this piece of legislation passed,” Solages, a Democrat, told The Point. “From what I’m hearing, it’s being stalled.”

Assemb. Andrew Raia, a Republican health committee member, voiced similar doubts.

“I think it’s going to be a problem,” Raia said of the legislation, noting that the only way that could change is if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came out with more definitive support of the bill.

Cuomo’s tune on the legislation has begun to shift. “I don’t think the religious exemption in this case with measles trumps the public health concern,” he said earlier this week.

Some state lawmakers have concerns over the legality of lifting the exemption. Others have questions about the safety of the vaccines themselves. And then there’s the anti-vax movement, which has pummeled legislators with calls and emails.

Solages, who said her office has received more than 200 calls from vaccination opponents in just over a week, said that if the bill did come up for a vote, she’d support it, but has questions about whether it would face a legal challenge. Raia, meanwhile, said he’s “soul searching,” but added: “My job is to weigh both sides and then make a judgement and err on the side of public health.”

At least one Assembly member wondered whether it would take a tragedy -- a death from measles, for instance -- for state lawmakers to push the bill forward. But Dinowitz hopes the current outbreak is bad enough to get their attention.

“We’ve got to do it,” Dinowitz said. “There’s an emergency going on.”