Despite somewhat mixed national results, New York voters moved state politics firmly into the deep blue as Democrats had a remarkably strong showing in last week’s election. On the Congressional level, results were good for New York – a number of senior New York members of Congress will be moving up into powerful leadership posts, the U.S, Senate Minority leader is from New York, and the state has two elected officials, U.S. Senator Gillibrand and Governor Cuomo, who are mentioned as serious candidates for President in 2020.
But it was at the state Capitol that the biggest changes occurred. While Democrats running for statewide office cruised to massive victories, Democrats surprised Republicans by picking up eight seats to give them a solid majority in control of the state Senate. This means for the first time in a decade, one party controls both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.
The election represents a sea change in the state Senate. A total of 16 new Senators were elected, with 14 of them Democrats. Those changes gave the Democrats the biggest Senate majority – of either political party – in decades. And while Democrats now have a solid majority, the composition of that conference will take time to coalesce. Fourteen of the Democrats are new, 14 Democrats are based outside of the City of New York, the leadership and its staff have not yet been tested, and the governor will play a big role. The governor not only had a huge electoral victory in his own right, he also played a powerful force in the success of Senate Democrats, thus giving him significant influence among members of their conference.
With all of that being said, Democratic control of the state government will likely mean that the 2019 legislative session will see significant movement on policies. It appears that the governor and the two houses are in agreement over strengthening state laws dealing with abortion, gun control, voter registration and election law changes, additional legal rights for individuals who claim to have been abused as children, more money to fund New York City’s crumbling mass transit system, state financial aid for undocumented college students, and changes in the rules for setting bail for criminal defendants.
It is likely that additional issues will be at the forefront of the legislative debate, even if it’s not yet clear whether there is a consensus for action. For example, the state’s rent control law expires this year—a major concern for tenants and the powerful landlord lobby. The real estate industry has always banked its strategies on the Senate Republican Majority. What happens now?
The governor’s Health Department issued a report that appears to show support for decriminalizing the use of marijuana, coupled with legislative support. Will there be action?
Corruption in state government has been an ongoing, serious problem. The governor has stated that he wants changes in ethics laws, yet his proposals have been vague. The incoming legislative leadership has been even vaguer on what they want. Will changes be made that actually reduce the risk of corruption and establish meaningful independent oversight?
Lastly, there are other issues that were raised during the campaign that are expected to be hotly debated, even though it is unclear if there is sufficient support from leadership. For instance, while there is consensus that the state must protect its program that offers coverage to those who do not either qualify for health insurance from their employers or through state government programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, how the state will expand coverage for these New Yorkers is not at all clear. While the issue of “single payer” health insurance has broad appeal within the Democratic Party, Governor Cuomo rejected the idea as too expensive. Even with the state facing a budget deficit this year, expect that the issue of expanding coverage to be near the top of the legislative debates during the budget.
Similarly, Democrats have long supported establishing a voluntary system of public financing for candidates running for elective office. Yet now that they are in the majority, the political leadership has not mentioned the idea among the items that they expect to tackle. However, New Yorkers will likely see action to close the campaign finance loophole that allows Limited Liability Companies to make contributions that far exceed the amount allowed for other businesses.
But whether the debate focuses on more fundamental changes – such as establishing a system of public financing – will turn on whether New Yorkers demand action to change a system described by the former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara as a “cauldron of corruption.”
And what to do to protect the state’s imperiled drinking water supplies, how to combat climate change, and how to dispose of mounting garbage? These issues were all but ignored during the campaigns and as a result have not been mentioned as top legislative action items by the state’s political leadership.
Those issues will undoubtedly force their way onto the list of legislative action items at some point, but what will happen is, as of now, murky.
And, of course, there are many more issues that need to be addressed.
What is clear though is that the era of finger pointing and blaming the other political party for inaction has passed. Democrats fought hard to achieve their electoral victories. Now they must begin the hard work of actually solving New York’s problems.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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