The leaders of New York’s Legislature say they are poised for a banner 2013 session and they are — on paper.
A Senate leadership struggle dating back four years that gridlocked important legislation over politics rather than merit appears settled by a bipartisan coalition.
This year, as opposed to 2012, there is a clear road map of progressive ideas already endorsed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Silver. As for Silver, he is perhaps more powerful than ever after quietly picking up a half-dozen more seats in the fall elections and apparently staving off a scandal involving sexual harassment claims against a Democratic assemblyman.
And all have assured New Yorkers that policy will trump politics.
But in practice, the next legislative session is as certain as a roll of the dice.
“The Senate coalition, though unprecedented and a bit bizarre, could prove effective and productive,” said Doug Muzzio, political science professor at New York City’s Baruch College.
The unprecedented bipartisan coalition remains tenuous, if it will exist at all come Jan. 1.
The Senate’s Republican majority struck a deal with the five breakaway members Independent Democratic Conference earlier this month. That deal was made when the Republican conference appeared unlikely to keep the majority on its own as two races too close to call on election night in November hinged on a long count of absentee ballots. Republicans struck a deal in this uncertainty because they needed the IDC to at least have a share of the power and perks of the majority.
But the Republican majority’s much-criticized play to create a 63rd Senate in a Republican-friendly district seems to have paid off. A judge declared that Sen.-elect George Amedore won by about 39 votes out of 120,000 cast in the new 46th Senate District. Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk, however, is appealing to a higher court.
If Amedore’s win holds, however, Republicans have a working majority. That’s because Republicans enticed Democratic Sen.-Elect Simcha Felder of Brooklyn to sit and presumably vote with the Republican majority. Felder made it clear in his campaign that he would join the Republicans, which before Election Day seemed a safe bet to continue its majority power. Felder said sitting with the GOP majority would best serve his constituents in funding and policy. And as the Republican’s potential critical 32nd vote, the freshman Felder will wield great power.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said if Amedore’s win holds, the Republican-IDC coalition is “irrelevant.”
That could mean the IDC, despite its coalition with Republicans, and the traditional Democratic conference may have little voice after all.
So until the political platitudes and pundit speculation turns to practice, no one knows how the Senate will react to the progressive agenda Democrats and Cuomo have promised for 2013.
For example, Senate Republicans have blocked the Democrats’ goal of raising the minimum and public financing of campaigns. Republicans say a higher minimum wage will kill jobs, and that taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to fund political campaigns when schools need to be funded and taxes need to be cut.
In theory, the IDC — which supports Cuomo’s fiscally conservative measures such as flat or reduced spending, on-time budgets and measures to restrain taxes — will side primarily with Republicans on GOP priorities, including tax cuts for businesses and tax enticements to create jobs. The IDC is also expected to side with traditional Democrats on progressive measures such as raising the minimum wage, campaign finance overhaul and restricting the stop-and-frisk practices of the New York City Police Department.
Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos of Long Island has already cast doubt on those progressive measures. His conference could be in a position to keep bills from reaching the floor even if they would easily be adopted into law by Democrats.
“Our agenda is not changing,” Skelos said. “There’s no agreement on any legislation, whether it will pass, not pass, or come to the floor.”
Despite sharing the majority with the IDC, Skelos said he expects to keep committee chairmanships, with their lucrative stipends, and staff positions in the hands of Republicans.
“I think there basically will be very little disruption,” he said.
There was no reaction from the IDC about Skelos’ comments, but plenty from the Cuomo and traditional Democratic conference.
“The more we hear about this deal, the worse news it is for the people of this state who overwhelmingly voted for progressive change,” said Mike Murphy, spokesman for the traditional Democrats. “This is nothing more than the same old Republican control and conservative policies.”
“If Senator Skelos is opposed to the agenda of the people of the state, then I will oppose him, and then I will be involved,” Cuomo told WGDJ-AM in Albany.
“If you don’t pass campaign finance, I think you failed the people of the state. If you don’t pass minimum wage, I think you failed the people of the state,” Cuomo said in a news conference.
But so far, bipartisanship is rare in New York’s notoriously partisan Senate.
Besides bitter feelings between the current traditional Democratic conference and Independent Democratic Conference, racial tensions that are often part of Albany politics are simmering. The traditional Democratic conference has eight African-American senators and six Latinos. The IDC has one black senator, who joined just hours before the bipartisan coalition was announced, and the Republicans have no senators of color.
“The real question to me is will (Sen. Jeffrey) Klein, Skelos and company be successful in this experiment of European style parliamentary democracy,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll.
“The electoral politics is going to be — if not on the front burner — very close to the forefront of everything the Senate does over the next two years,” Greenberg said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.