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Democrats To Control NYS Senate, But Will It Be A Smooth Ride?

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt

On January 9, Democrats will officially take over the New York state Senate for just the third time in more than a century. They expect to act quickly on a number of measures that have been bottled up in the chamber for years, but there could be some friction between them and the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Democrats, led by Majority Leader-elect Andrea Stewart-Cousins, predict that the early weeks of the session will feature swift action on expanding voter access, implementing stricter gun control measures and strengthening women’s rights, including codifying the abortion rights in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into New York law.

Senator Stewart-Cousins spoke shortly after being re-elected to lead the Democrats late last year.

“A lot of things that people expected of us frankly, were not delivered,” said Stewart-Cousins. “Come January, and in the ensuing months, all of that will change.”

Governor Cuomo says he’s on board with many of those items, and seems eager to steer the socially progressive agenda through his budget plan, due later in January. Cuomo, who made his reelection campaign about his resistance to President Donald Trump and his policies, expressed relief during his inaugural address Tuesday about the new Democratic control of the legislature.

“I feel liberated,” Cuomo said. “I felt like I was fighting with one arm tied behind my back.”

Critics say Cuomo helped keep the Republicans in power in the Senate for eight years while their numbers waned, when the governor tacitly supported a group of breakaway Democrats. The Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, at times co-ruled the Senate with the GOP, leaving the rest of the Democrats in the minority in the chamber. Six of the eight members of the former IDC were defeated in the September primary.  

But even though the Democrats will control the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, there are going to be some friction points.

Many Democrats in the Senate and the Assembly want the state to fulfill a 12-year-old court order that they say requires billions more dollars to be spent on public schools, especially in the state’s poorest areas. Cuomo, in a speech in late December, drew the battle lines when he said he thinks the state already spends enough money on schools, it just needs to be better distributed in individual school districts. He urged lawmakers to move on from the court decision.

“These are ghosts of the past,” Cuomo said. “And distractions from the present.” 

Cuomo and Democratic lawmakers may also clash on single payer health care. Many in the Senate and the Assembly back a Medicare-for-all style proposal for New York, but the governor has not endorsed it. He says he instead wants to strengthen the federal Affordable Care Act.

Richard Brodsky is a former state Assemblymember who is now a political commentator, and teaches the NYU Wagner School. He says when it comes to approving spending for education, health care, and other items in the state budget, Governor Cuomo holds a lot of power. He says Democrats in the Senate may not yet fully realize that.

“I don’t think they quite understand the dictatorial powers of the governor in the budget,” said Brodsky. "When the governor says 'I want a law in the budget,' the legislature does not have the constitutional power to say 'no' to him. And that really shocks people when they figure it out.”

Brodsky says the governor, in order to maintain the power he’s enjoyed over the legislature in this first two terms in office, may try to peel away the Senators in more fiscally conservative areas of Long Island, Hudson Valley and Upstate, from the rest of the Democrats on the  issues of taxes and spending. The governor has already said he wants to continue a statewide property tax cap, and is against imposing more income taxes on the wealthy beyond an exisiting state surcharge on millionaires.

“I he can’t make that split, he’s going to have to move to the left on economic issues,” Brodsky said. “And I don’t think he wants to.” 

Democratic political consultant Bruce Gyory says if the Senate Democrats want to maintain a strong majority, then they should act themselves to protect new members in previously Republican-held seats from having to vote for spending and taxes that might be unpopular with their constituents.

Gyory, who is not working for the Senate Democrats or Cuomo, says the suburban Senators could perhaps compromise on other issues New York City Democrats need to deliver on, like improving rent regulations and fixing the subways.

“If they talk to each other and figure that out, they can continue to be productive,” Gyory said.  

Gyory says if Democrats want to be successful, though, they need above all to avoid a “circular firing squad.”

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