Saturday, June 22, 2002
Bonacic key to bill's passage
By Matt Smith
ALBANY - It started, at first, because state Sen. John Bonacic just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
New to the state Legislature's upper house, the former assemblyman and Orange County legislator had a reputation for being a progressive Republican who was friendly on public-policy issues affecting women.
But as a rookie senator, the Mount Hope Republican, whose district includes Delaware County, was somewhat unassuming, and even more importantly he wasn't considered a "bomb-throwing" pro-choice soldier.
"I didn't want a loud pro-choice advocate," said Lynn Grefe, national director of the Pro-Choice Republican Coalition. "I didn't want this to turn into an abortion bill."
In 1999, Grefe was looking for someone in the GOP-controlled state Senate to sponsor a piece of legislation called the Women's Health and Wellness Act.
Authored by Democratic Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan, the legislation passed by state lawmakers Monday after a contentious four-year battle requires insurers to cover osteoporosis exams, early breast and cervical-cancer screenings and doctor-prescribed contraceptives.
As the owner of a second home in Bonacic's district, Grefe said she believed the legislation would help "working poor women" throughout the mid-Hudson and Catskill region.
"When I approached John (about sponsoring the bill), I don't think he was even in office yet for seven days," Grefe said with a laugh. But "I knew he was stepping into the Senate to take over the seat of Charlie Cook, who was one of the most wonderful senators that we ever had on these issues."
Bonacic said, when he first read the bill, "I thought it had a 50-to-1 shot."
But, he said, "I believed the bill, on its merit, was compelling. It came down to inequity. And, in time, it became indefensible not to do the bill. When 68 percent of an insurance policy that you pay your annual premium on covers men's services, and only 32 percent covers women's, and they have to go out of their pocket for health-care costs, that was an inequity that had to be addressed."
However, getting others in the Republican-dominated Senate to see it the same way wasn't easy. In fact, the issue erupted into both an emotional and holy war that, in the end, has become the defining moment of Bonacic's 30-year career in politics.
The bill, introduced in March 1999, drew an immediate avalanche of opposition. The Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews charged that the contraceptive provision was a violation of religious freedom. The state's Business Council blasted the plan as another unfunded mandate. And the state Conservative Party slammed the legislation on both grounds.
It wasn't long, either, before Bonacic had fellow Senate Republicans on his back. When he introduced the legislation, more than 20 Republican senators were listed as co-sponsors of the bill. But as opposition from Republican-friendly special interests grew, many of those co-sponsors began removing their names from the legislation.
Then, three Senate Committee chairmen introduced their own competing bill that required coverage for the osteoporosis and cancer screenings but removed the contraceptive provision.
For two full legislative sessions, despite Glick's success in pushing the legislation through the Assembly, Senate leaders refused to entertain Bonacic's bill.
Bonacic acknowledged that he was pressured by several members of his house to remove the contraceptive provision. But, he said, he never considered doing so, despite the fact that the issue was causing friction in his conference.
"My wife and daughter, they were an integral part in supporting me," the senator said. "They convinced me that it was the right thing to do for women. They were very inspirational."
Peter Slocum, spokesman for Family Planning Advocates of New York State, said that had Bonacic caved in to the calls for the removal of the contraceptive provision, the Women's Health and Wellness Act would have died.
"As the sponsor, he could have cut his losses, and in doing so, he could have stayed friends with a whole bunch of (special interest) groups and even with some of the members of his own conference," Slocum said.
Grefe also said that, had Bonacic removed the contraceptive provision, the issue would never have passed the Senate on its own.
"There were times where he was really getting beat up in the Senate," she said. "There were times when a lot of the members just wanted him to go away."
Bonacic admitted that there are still some in the Senate who hold hard feelings toward him.
However, a high-ranking Senate GOP aide connected to a lawmaker who also angered his fellow Republicans after pushing through a controversial bill several years ago, said: "There are some members that are upset with him, but my advice would be, keep moving on because over time, those feelings are going to pass."
It wasn't until January of last year before Bonacic and women's groups caught their first break. After convincing Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno that preventative care could save "back-end" health costs, the GOP-run house passed a Women's Health and Wellness Act that contained a "conscience clause," allowing faith-based employers such as Catholic-run hospitals a chance to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage.
Though Bonacic was encouraged, neither the Democratic-controlled Assembly nor the Catholic Church were pleased. Glick called the Senate move a "poison pill" and Cardinal Edward Egan, leader of the Diocese of New York, made two trips to Albany to personally lobby against the legislation.
"Government must not interfere with matters of religious faith," Egan warned.
But in February, the path was paved for a final agreement on the bill, when the Senate passed an amended piece of legislation that limited the types of businesses that could be exempted from the law on religious grounds.
Critics of the Senate's move charged the house's Republican leadership with moving to the left for political purposes, since the amended bill was passed right before a special election for a Senate seat in New York City, and since all 211 state lawmakers are up for re-election in November.
But Bruno rejected claims that he was moving his conference to the left for political reasons, despite the fact that enrolled Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York state by 2 million.
"We're moving in the direction of where a great majority of New Yorkers are," he said. "We have to be pragmatic in some ways."
With Monday's passage by the Legislature, the Women's Health and Wellness Act has been moved to the governor's desk. And although the state's Catholic Conference has threatened to sue over the legislation, Gov. George Pataki has said he will sign the bill.
"We've done something that really matters," said Bonacic, who was recognized recently along with Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition National Fund-raiser in New York. "I was not going to dilute this bill to the extent that it did not allow us to accomplish something real."
Matt Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (518) 463-1157.