Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/510 Fri, 15 Jan 2021 14:56:24 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) New York and the Veto–Proof Legislature https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10014-new-york-veto-proof-legislature-governor-cuomo-override https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10014-new-york-veto-proof-legislature-governor-cuomo-override sotsad gov

Governors Andrew and Mario Cuomo (photo: governor's office)


Early in 1984 I visited Governor Mario Cuomo’s office in Albany at his invitation. He wanted to discuss a talk I’d given at the New School about his first year as governor. I found myself going on about the growing dominance of the governor in New York’s legislative process. Governor Cuomo loved to debate. I knew from earlier experience that trouble was ahead when he started a sentence by addressing me as “professor.”

“Don’t you realize, professor,” he said, “that when it comes to making law, they can act without me, but I cannot act without them?” His point was that he could block passage of a law, but that a determined legislature, by a two-thirds vote of those elected to each house, could override his veto. 

Fast forward to the 2020 election. It resulted in “veto-proof majorities” – one party with more than two-thirds the seats – in both the Assembly and the Senate. This has not occurred in New York since 1948, and was a first for the Democratic Party in the legislature since the adoption of the state’s current constitution in 1894. It has generated considerable discussion about the prospect of the legislature using the override power to enact a more progressive policy agenda than favored by Mario Cuomo’s son, the current governor, Andrew Cuomo. How realistic is that conjecture?    

The Rules and Their Consequences
All state constitutions provide for an executive veto; all also provide for legislative override. In New York, the executive veto power was added to the state Constitution at the 1821 constitutional convention. (Previously the veto resided in a Council of Revision. That Council might be overridden by two-thirds majorities of both houses; this possibility was carried over to apply to the new governor’s veto.)

Compared to provisions in other states, New York’s legislative majorities required to override a governor’s veto are both the most typical and the most demanding. In 36 states the majorities needed in each house to override the governor are the same as in New York. In six – and in unicameral Nebraska – it’s three-fifths. In six it’s a simple majority. Unique to Alaska, two-thirds of the members of both houses meeting jointly are required to override. 

Nationally, state legislatures seek to override about one in 20 gubernatorial vetoes. But in New York, override attempts are very rare. The two-thirds vote required in each house is a high bar. Also, the relative strength of the governor’s overall powers discourages taking on the executive. For much of the 20th Century, a constitutionally-based gerrymander usually produced Republican majorities in the Assembly and Senate. Until fairly recently, however, the state’s history of political competitiveness kept one party or the other from overwhelming dominance within each house. Thus, from the governorship of Democrat James T. Hoffman in 1872 until that of Democrat Hugh Carey in 1976 – a period of 104 years – New York governors used the veto freely, but none was overridden. 

The History in New York
In the 19th Century all city charters were state laws; they therefore could only be adopted and amended by the state legislature. The legislature in 1872 overrode Governor Hoffman’s veto of a charter amendment concerning the structure and accountability of the proposed elected City of Albany Police Commission favored by the leaders of both major parties. 

Over a century later, in 1976, during the second year of the Carey administration, the override arose from political pressures connected with a massive New York City fiscal crisis. In response to draconian New York City budgets the teachers union sought a state legislative mandate that total New York City education spending not fall below the average spent for this purpose in the three previous years. Governor Carey vetoed the bill; he said he did so to assure equity in the distribution of the inevitable pain that the city’s fiscal crisis was producing. The legislature overrode the veto. The courts however, found unconstitutional the substance of the bill and the process by which the veto was undone in the Senate. So this was actually, finally, a failed override attempt.

The six successful overrides since then focused upon financial issues, such as state spending, mandates upon New York City, and local taxation.

Governor Carey was often dismissive of the legislature. Moreover, under Speaker Stanley Fink, the Assembly became more assertive in independently advancing a policy agenda. Also, as austerity eased later in Carey’s second term the legislative houses, restive with gubernatorial dominance of revenue-estimating, each developed an independent capacity to project how much more money there was to spend, and set out to spend it. In 1979 the Assembly overrode Carey’s vetoes of Assembly initiatives, backed by the Senate, to ease the impact on working poor and older New Yorkers of heating price increases arising as a result of the energy crisis. In 1982 many of Carey’s numerous vetoes of legislative budget adds were overridden. Also, in that year the legislature overrode the governor’s veto of a bill passed to circumvent a politically-explosive state high court decision requiring full value assessment of real estate for tax purposes.

In his 12 years in office beginning in 1982, Mario Cuomo himself had not a single veto undone by the legislature. His successor George Pataki, a Republican, was overridden three times. In 1996 he failed in an attempt to block a measure favored by the New York City Police Benevolent Association that the city’s Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, claimed would result in $200 million in additional labor costs. In 2003 the legislature overrode Pataki’s vetoes of several state and New York City tax bills, most importantly the first state increase in the personal income tax rate in over two decades. And in 2006, the Senate and Assembly overrode almost all of Pataki’s vetoes of their budget additions. 

Since then, there have been attempts, but no veto overrides passed by both houses of the New York legislature. Democratic Governor David Patterson’s 2010 veto of an ethics reform bill was overridden in the Democratic Assembly, but not in the Republican Senate. In 2018 Governor Andrew Cuomo’s veto of a bill that sought to fund full-day kindergarten in the remaining nine New York school districts that had not instituted it, was overridden unanimously by bipartisan vote in the Republican-run Senate. However, in the Democratic Assembly, where the bill had also initially passed unanimously with bipartisan backing, Speaker Carl Heastie declined to follow suit.

The Intra-Party Dilemma
Democrats have controlled the New York State Assembly since 1974. Since 2002, except for 2010 and 2011, they have held more than 100 seats in that 150-seat body, a veto-proof majority. Republicans commanded a Senate majority from 1969 through 2008 and 2010 through 2018, but never held two-thirds or more of the seats. 

Without a veto-proof majority, overriding a gubernatorial veto requires support from a chamber’s minority party members. In the highly-partisan New York legislature, majorities rarely see value in empowering the opposition. Moreover, minority party members in a house may be in the governor’s party, sharing the governor’s views and responsive to the governor’s appeal on partisan grounds. 

Most significantly, however, overriding the governor in this circumstance of divided partisan control requires majority party legislators in one house to take on a chief executive of their own party, daunting and risky for members who might later be dependent on gubernatorial support or good will for realization of their ambitions. History shows that each override effort in the state has been variously motivated in the specific circumstance by the convergence of a different mix of factors, including for example: a desire to assert the power of the legislative institution; a need to please a valued constituency; and/or a wish to publicly embarrass or sanction the governor, the mayor of New York City, or another political adversary. 

Notwithstanding its rarity until now, experience elsewhere suggests that more frequent override politics might well be in store for New York with the arrival of Assembly and Senate veto-proof majorities. In 2021, according to Ballotpedia, “…there were 22 state legislatures where one party held a veto-proof majority in both legislative chambers.” (Unicameral Nebraska also had such a majority in its Senate, though it is formally non-partisan.) Analogous to the coming situation in Albany, most of these legislatures were controlled by the majorities of the governor’s party.     

Yet co-partisanship did not preclude veto overrides, most focused on fiscal issues. For example, in Mississippi in 2020 the Republican legislature overrode a partial veto by Republican Governor Trent Reeves of an education appropriation bill linked to teacher pay. And in Oklahoma the Republican legislature overrode Republican Governor Kevin Stitt’s veto of the state budget as excessively draconian. In both of these states overriding the governor’s veto requires a two-thirds majority in each house, just as it does in New York.

A busy 2021 legislative session is in the offing in Albany. In the still early days of a long dark COVID-19 winter, the Senate and Assembly will likely continue meeting remotely. Early on, legislators will have to decide whether to continue the governor’s pandemic-related emergency powers, initially limited to a year. The mix of spending cuts and taxes to address the state and local fiscal crisis will dominate the agenda. Unless delayed by the unavailability of Census data, majority members will be focused upon adopting redistricting plans that assure job security for themselves and further entrench Democratic control of both houses. Democrats will almost surely also try to grow their share of the (shrinking) state Congressional delegation. 

Proposed changes to the state constitution, a process in which the governor has no formal role, offer opportunities for legislative assertion without the need to override. Legislators will consider first-passage of a constitutional amendment to ask the people to help them regain some of their greatly diminished fiscal powers. There is also an unfinished ballot-access, election-reform agenda. Having been given a taste of the convenience of no-excuse absentee voting, constituents will expect its continuance. This will require second passage of a constitutional amendment. An amendment will also be needed to reform New York’s party-dominated process for election administration, which again proved very problematic this year.

Newly-elected progressive Democrats see veto-proof majorities as a tool for wresting control of the policy agenda from the governor to institute their social change agenda in such areas as health care, criminal justice reform, and tenants’ rights. They are likely to be disappointed. 

As noted, there is a lot to do in the coming session, in a difficult environment. Second, just look at the state’s map of the presidential vote in 2020. Much of the territory outside the big cities is red, including in some New York City suburbs. Democratic legislators elected from these areas are moderate, even conservative. They do not necessarily embrace a full progressive agenda. Moreover, Governor Andrew Cuomo is of their own party, remains very powerful, and intends to seek a fourth term. Also, Cuomo’s status was elevated as he became the alternative Democratic voice to President Donald Trump’s in addressing the pandemic. He retains a national platform that has a multiplier effect: it is a political and governmental resource within the state. And in recent months, as the state’s Democratic Party has re-centered to the left, the governor has found a way to visibly move with it, for example on the question of police reform. 

But then there is the budget. 

New York is looking at a $14.9 billion shortfall for fiscal year 2021 and a total revenue gap of $63 billion through fiscal year 2024. Federal aid to states and localities has still not been appropriated. The governor has publicly said that the state will need to raise new taxes. But almost certainly he will seek to fill the gap with far more cuts than new revenue, while most Democratic legislators will prefer the opposite. Moreover, taxing the rich more heavily, advocated by progressive Democrats, might be preferable to their less liberal colleagues than higher property taxes or major layoffs in school districts and municipalities. So this is where the Democratic legislative intra-party unity required for veto override politics may emerge. And, as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s father taught me, “they” might very well make law without him.

***
Gerald Benjamin is Emeritus Founding Director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

Note: this column has been updated with two additional veto overrides not included when the piece first published.

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New York and the Veto–Proof Legislature Mon, 21 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Jamaal Bailey on the Albany Agenda and Leading the Bronx Democrats https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10004-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-jamaal-bailey-albany-agenda-bronx-democrats https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10004-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-jamaal-bailey-albany-agenda-bronx-democrats state jamaal bailey

State Senator Jamaal Bailey (photo: NY Senate)


December 16, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Jamaal Bailey on the Albany Agenda and Leading the Bronx Democrats

State Senator Jamaal Bailey of the Bronx joined the show to discuss his agenda, where the state may be headed in terms of solving its fiscal issues and helping struggling New Yorkers, and his leadership of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

Max & Murphy · Episode 265: State Senator Jamaal Bailey On The Albany Agenda And Leading The Bronx Democrats

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Jamaal Bailey on the Albany Agenda and Leading the Bronx Democrats Wed, 16 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
What Covid and the 2020 Elections Taught Us: It’s Time to Do Right by New Yorkers on Health Care https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9991-covid-2020-elections-do-right-new-yorkers-health-care https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9991-covid-2020-elections-do-right-new-yorkers-health-care f lady visit

Health care remains the top issue for voters (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


The Biden-Harris victory is great news and a huge relief. Our country has suffered under Trump.

But we have a problem. A record number of voters rejected a national campaign that stood for greater economic fairness, science-based policies on COVID-19 and the environment, protecting health care coverage, and racial justice.

In New York state legislative races, moderate and progressive candidates did well, achieving strong legislative majorities for Democrats in both houses. But several challengers as well as good incumbents running for re-election lost or won in races that were real nail-biters. After all we went through with Trump, these candidates, and others, should have had stronger results.

As we look forward, we need to ask: What’s wrong, and how do we fix it.

Many working people across the country, in every demographic group, are disillusioned. They believe many of our political leaders are too close with corporate interests and fail to fight on vital kitchen-table economic issues.

Many people have been swayed by campaigns that make dishonest accusations and exploit divisive issues and fears.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be won back or for the first time, to support policies that would make a real difference in their daily lives and futures.

To achieve that, I believe we must strengthen our progressive message, not move away from it.

Opinion polls have long told us that health care is the number one issue for the most voters. And while the Affordable Care Act has done a lot of good, COVID-19 has further exposed the gaping shortfalls and gross inequality that plague American health care.

Three quarters of our neighbors are afraid that they cannot afford their health care or health coverage and fear medical debt. Each year, a third of families who have health coverage have a household member who goes without needed health care because of cost; their health coverage doesn’t do the job.

We don’t have real choices. The vast majority of employees are covered by a health plan that’s tied to their job. Health plans impose rising premiums, deductibles, and copays, and we have to pay them if we want to keep our insurance. Health plans dictate which doctors, hospitals, and medicines they cover. And they impose the same costs whether you’re a multi-millionaire CEO or a receptionist.

If you lose your job, which has happened to millions of people, you lose job-connected health coverage.

Access to health care is diminishing. Losing hospitals, doctors, nurses, and neighborhood pharmacies is a growing problem in many communities, including rural areas, in large part because “third party payers” (i.e., health insurance companies) underpay them or exclude them from their restrictive provider networks.

We need to deliver a health plan that by law guarantees everyone complete coverage; complete choice of doctors, hospitals, and other health-care providers; and is funded based on ability to pay. It should include long-term care (home care and nursing home care), which can be a frightening cost that can wipe out a family’s lifetime savings.

In New York, this means the New York Health Act to establish universal single-payer health coverage. It’s more comprehensive than any health plan available. Having us all in the same boat – rich and poor alike – is the best way to guarantee it’s the best possible plan.

Passing the New York Health Act is the one best thing we can do for the health and family finances of almost every New Yorker.

Does the covid recession mean we can’t afford it? No.

Taking insurance companies out of the picture will save New York $55 billion a year we now waste on insurance company bureaucracy, marketing, and profit; on administrative costs doctors and hospitals spend fighting with insurance companies; and on the excessive prices we pay to drug companies because no single insurer has enough bargaining clout to force prices down.

These savings would enable us to cover the uninsured and cover what New Yorkers now spend on deductibles, co-pays, out-of-network charges, and other out-of-pocket costs.  Instead of premiums, the New York health plan will be funded through a broad-based tax based on ability to pay.

It will simplify an excessively complicated and convoluted system, for patients, health-care providers, and employers, while providing universal health coverage for all New Yorkers, regardless of ability to pay and not attached to employment.

The New York Health Act has passed the State Assembly four times. We need to do it again and get it through the State Senate. New York’s health depends on it.

***
Assemblymember Richard N. Gottfried represents parts of Manhattan and is the chair of the New York State Assembly Health Committee. On Twitter @DickGottfried.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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What Covid and the 2020 Elections Taught Us: It’s Time to Do Right by New Yorkers on Health Care Tue, 15 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Mass New York Voter Enfranchisement Awaits a Stroke of the Governor’s Pen https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9957-new-york-automatic-voter-registration-bill-governor-cuomo-sign https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9957-new-york-automatic-voter-registration-bill-governor-cuomo-sign stu voter reg

Voters would have less hassle registering under AVR (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Following the widespread problems in the execution of this year’s elections, it’s clear we need to transform New York’s voting systems from top to bottom. From restoring confidence in the Board of Elections to reducing long lines and wait times counting ballots, lawmakers must take action now to prevent another disaster the next time New Yorkers vote. Thankfully, there is one important fix that can be done immediately: enacting the Automatic Voter Registration legislation that passed the Legislature and is currently awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature.

There’s no question that 2020 has been an extraordinary year for democracy – and the COVID-19 pandemic presented serious challenges for election administration across the country and here in New York. And while there were record shattering levels of enthusiasm among voters this year, our state continues to fall short. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, New York ranks 45th in the nation for registered voters as a percentage of the population. Indeed, there are up to 1 million New Yorkers who are eligible to vote, but remain unregistered.

The best way to ensure that we never have to let the burdens of the registration process lead to low turnout and other complications at the polls is to enact Automatic Voter Registration.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a simple, secure, and straightforward tool that will immediately increase New York’s abysmal registration rates. Through AVR, eligible voters become automatically registered when they engage with government agencies like the Department of Labor, Department of Motor Vehicles, or a Medicaid enrollment office, provided they do not opt out. The AVR system would then securely transmit the voter’s registration information from those agencies to the State Board of Elections. Had this policy been in effect in 2020, eligible unenrolled New Yorkers filing for jobless claims with the Department of Labor could have been added to the voter rolls automatically. 

New York’s democracy problems pre-date the coronavirus. In 2018, New York ranked 42nd in the nation in voter turnout, and experts believe that this one simple reform is a key to reversing our shockingly low level of electoral engagement. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed AVR, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont just across our borders. Many of these states tore down obstacles to voter participation with bipartisan legislative majorities or through ballot measures that decisively won with broad support from the public.

The lessons from Oregon are particularly instructive. Since it became the first state in the country to implement Automatic Voter Registration, Oregon’s voter registration rates quadrupled at DMV locations across the state. Indeed, over 90% of eligible voters are now registered. Not only are these newly-registered individuals on the voter rolls, they are actually voting as well. A report found that 44% of these previously unregistered individuals voted in the elections following AVR implementation. And in 2018, Oregon far exceeded the national turnout average with one of the highest rates in the country. 

Unquestionably, last year was a banner year for voting reforms in New York State. With full Democratic control of the Legislature in Albany, it was the first time in memory that laws were passed to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers. The bottlenecked backlog of reforms that included early voting, pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds, consolidation of primary dates, and flexibility to change party affiliation helped transform New York away from its status as a state with some of the most arcane and restrictive voting policies.

However, despite this progress, there is still unfinished business as the election made abundantly clear. And AVR is at the top of that list.

We have an opportunity to modernize our state’s broken election system with one of the most popular and common-sense reforms available, one that will enhance registration in particular for underrepresented populations that are too often missed. We simply can’t afford to wait any longer, it’s time for Governor Cuomo to sign Automatic Voter Registration into law now.

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State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) are the lead sponsors of the Automatic Voter Registration bill. On Twitter @SenGianaris and @TheRealLatriceW.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Mass New York Voter Enfranchisement Awaits a Stroke of the Governor’s Pen Wed, 02 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The Covid Crisis Made the New York Health Act More Urgent, More Unlikely, or Both https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9910-covid-crisis-new-york-health-act-single-payer-care-urgent-unlikely https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9910-covid-crisis-new-york-health-act-single-payer-care-urgent-unlikely 2 commish

New Yorkers at a hospital, pre-pandemic (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


When Mariana Pineda was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April, she spent several days in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and sepsis after not being able to see a primary care doctor due to a recent change in insurance plans.

Pineda, an asthmatic, is one of an untold number of New Yorkers who put off seeking treatment for the coronavirus due to complications with insurance plans or not having health care coverage at all.

“The third day of feeling very sick at home I drove myself to urgent care because it felt like my lungs were filling with wet cement,” she said.

After her stay in the hospital and what seemed like a successful recovery, Pineda began to experience chest pain and difficulty breathing in August. A month later she underwent surgery for a pulmonary embolism and had to have six blood clots removed from her lungs.

Due to long-term complications from COVID-19, Pineda has been unable to work and was set to lose her employment-based insurance on October 19.

She was planning to enroll in COBRA, which will cost her thousands of dollars a month for coverage for herself and her four children, instead of the $400 she would usually pay monthly to get coverage through her job as a special education teacher.

“I'm not working and I don't have an income, there's no way I'm going to be able to afford the COBRA,” she said, “so I have to decide whether I just force myself to go back to work against doctor's orders to keep my health insurance.”

The pandemic has further exposed issues with how health insurance is so often tied to employment in the United States. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost 50% of New Yorkers got their health insurance via their jobs in 2019. Overall, the percentage of New Yorkers with health insurance was about 95% in 2019, a record high thanks to the state’s insurance marketplace and other factors.

But massive job loss has thrown health insurance coverage into question for many thousands of New Yorkers, and during a pandemic no less.

In New York City, the unemployment rate was only 3.4% in February, a record low for the city. However, coronavirus restrictions forced many businesses to close in March, tourism came to a halt, and unemployment numbers began to rise, peaking in June at 20.3%. The most recent numbers released by the Department of Labor show that the city unemployment rate was 13.2% in October. Unemployment has been marginally better statewide. Up from 3.7% in February, it peaked in July at 15.9% before coming back down to 9.6% in October. 

For some, the link between getting health insurance through an employer and sudden job loss during a pandemic has highlighted the need for the passage of the New York Health Act, a bill in the state Legislature that would create a version of a single-payer healthcare system for universal health coverage in the state. The pandemic has dealt a significant blow to people who get their insurance from their jobs, leading proponents of the Health Act to call it more urgent than ever. As of September, the number of New Yorkers enrolled in Medicaid is up by over half a million from the same time last year.

For others, however, the legislation and what it portends is still too expensive and too disruptive, as it would completely change the way health insurance works in New York, and necessitate an overhaul of the tax code and a massive expansion of state government. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third term Democrat, has long opposed passage of the New York Health Act on the grounds that it would be too expensive and disruptive, and while it passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly multiple times, the bill has not moved in the Assembly or Senate since Democrats took control of both chambers at the start of 2019. The bill’s future appears murky, and there is little indication that either majority plans to make it a top priority in 2021. The offices of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not respond to requests for comment about the status of the New York Health Act in their respective chambers.

Under the Health Act, all residents of the state would be enrolled in a state-run insurance system for health care coverage, and one that would remove copays, concerns about finding “in-network” doctors, and other problems often associated with the current health insurance system. Proponents say that major inequalities in the current health insurance and health care systems that have been further exposed by the coronavirus pandemic would have been prevented or to a significant degree mitigated if single-payer health care had been in place in New York.

“If we had the New York Health Act sooner I would have had a primary care doctor all along,” said Pineda, who is working with the Campaign for New York Health to raise funds to cover the cost of her COBRA coverage and is a proponent of the legislation. “I probably would have gone to see him instead of trying to wait it out before I wound up, you know, with pneumonia and sepsis.”

The bill, the lead sponsors of which are State Senator Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried of Manhattan, both Democrats, has passed the Assembly four times since 2015, but has not yet passed the Senate, and neither house has passed it since Democrats regained control of the State Senate in January 2019. Just before those elections, the Assembly passed the bill and all the Democratic members of the Senate signed on to Rivera’s bill as co-sponsors if they hadn’t already.

When both houses of the Legislature had majorities and began passing many progressive priorities, there was greater expectation among advocates and other supporters of the bill, including legislators who’ve sponsored it, that it would move. But given Cuomo’s long-standing opposition as well as questions about its feasibility and criticism from some labor unions, the legislative majorities put the bill on the back-burner while Rivera and Gottfried continued to discuss it with key stakeholders, especially the unions, and held a series of hearings on the bill while tinkering with its language, hoping for further discussion in 2020 and potential movement in 2021, after another state legislative election cycle that is unfolding this year. 

Then the pandemic hit.

Assemblymember Gottfried believes that the New York Health Act would have helped prevent some of the now more than 26,000 deaths caused by the pandemic because New Yorkers would have had better, cheaper access to health care, both before and during the deadly outbreak.

“I believe a lot of people who developed COVID-19 symptoms put off going for care because they were afraid of the cost. And many of those people got a lot sicker, and many died as a result,” he said. Many New Yorkers who died, or got very ill, from COVID-19 also suffered from significant pre-existing conditions, like asthma and diabetes, that can develop or be worsened by insufficient medical care.

According to Gottfried, the bill is likely to have more support than ever in the upcoming session, beginning in January 2021, which he attributes to the pandemic and the new class of progressive Democrats taking office, some joining each of the Senate and Assembly. Several progressive candidates who beat Democratic incumbents in New York City or won open primaries in the city and elsewhere ran on the New York Health Act.

Senator Rivera, whose district has been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus in the five boroughs, says now is the time to get the legislation passed.

“We need to start going in that direction and do so aggressively,” he said. “If not, every time that we delay, it’s people that go broke because they get sick or die because they don't have care.”

The bill faces opposition from Republican legislators, who are not convinced that a single-payer health-care system would be something the state can successfully implement, as well as some moderate Democrats, labor unions, and others.

At a joint legislative hearing on the Health Act last year, Republican Senator Patrick Gallivan said a government-run, taxpayer-funded system was not the way to solve any issues within the current health-care system.

“This seems highly impractical in that no taxpayer-funded program can afford unlimited and unrestricted health care,” he said. “As I learned during a recent meeting with health-care experts in Toronto, approximately 30% of Canadian health care is funded by private insurance and out-of-pocket expenses.”

Bill Hammond, Senior Fellow for Health Policy at the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, said the legislation would be more disruptive than helpful, noting in an interview that 95% of New York’s population is already insured, and implementing the legislation would only disrupt their coverage. Hammond went on to say that the Health Act would consume the state Legislature “for the years that it takes to implement the plan, and probably forever after.”

Currently, the bill is in committee in both houses and the co-sponsors say there haven’t been any changes made to it as a result of the pandemic, though they had been making changes prior to the covid crisis based on the public hearings they held around the state last year.

In an interview on the Max & Murphy podcast earlier this year near the height of the pandemic in the city, Rivera emphasized the need for the New York Health Act and that it was imperative that the legislation gets passed as soon as possible.

“For those folks who would argue that it is complicated and is expensive: I would argue that it is neither as expensive or as complicated as the situation we find ourselves in right now,” he said.

The earliest the bill could pass is 2021, and only after significantly more debate, though that seems especially unlikely given the state’s ongoing public health, fiscal, and other crises wrought by the coronavirus outbreak. The influence of new, more progressive members in both Democratic conferences, including several backed by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, could prove influential, but a path to passage is currently unclear. For something of this magnitude, a three-way deal with Governor Cuomo would also likely be a prerequisite to passage in the Legislature, and while Cuomo has come out in support of single-payer health care, he has said it should only be done at the federal level.

In August, Democratic State Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, who is backed by the DSA, spoke about how the Legislature should be prioritizing the passage of the New York Health Act, particularly because of the impact the pandemic has had on communities of color.

“We really need to find a way to pass the New York Health Act or to ensure true universal health care,” she said on the Max & Murphy podcast. “A disproportionately high number of Black and brown New Yorkers are or have been dying from COVID-19 due to inequitable access and distribution of healthcare resources.”  

Phara Souffrant Forrest, a nurse and Assemblymember-elect after winning this year’s election, in which she first triumphed in the primary over a Democratic incumbent in Brooklyn, has the passage of the New York Health Act at the top of her campaign platform. She said it was one reason she ran against Assemblymember Walter Mosley, echoing other challengers in recent years who’ve said that Democrats must really fight for the progressive policies they say they support.

During a late October interview on Max & Murphy, Souffrant, also a DSA member and endorsee, suggested that in order to repair the state’s budget and find the revenue to pay for the New York Health Act, the state needs to “instill justice into this budget where we have people paying their fair share.”

“We have 126 billionaires living in New York City that made billions during a pandemic. So money is being made. It's just people aren't getting any of it, and some people are getting all of it,” she said.

But both legislative majorities have a diversity of Democrats, and there are few beyond the furthest left candidates and incumbents who cite the Health Act as a top priority for the near future.

Gottfried said both he and Rivera are prepared to make the appropriate amendments in order to get the legislation passed and signed. What those amendments may be is not totally clear, however.

“It’s not really the state’s responsibility”
Whenever it is brought up, the New York Health Act faces scrutiny over the estimated cost of the program, though those concerns are heightened for some now that the state is facing large deficits given the massive drop in tax revenue due to the covid shutdown and resultant job losses and limited economic activity.

A 2018 assessment done by the RAND corporation has been the main source of information about the potential impacts of the New York Health Act. Overall, it showed that the state would need to collect massive additional amounts of tax revenue, but that that revenue would negate similar overall expenditures on health insurance and health care that New Yorkers currently pay. Depending on the tax structure involved, many New Yorkers would save money on health costs.

The study suggested that if the Health Act was soon passed, state government would be spending about the same amount of money in 2022 as it currently spends on health care and would only see significant savings in health care costs by 2031 -- a roughly 3% decrease in overall spending. The report went on to say that in 2022, the state would need to collect $139.1 billion in tax revenue to pay for the program, a 156% increase from what the state collected in tax revenue at the time. However, what the state collects in taxes for the program would replace what New York was spending on health care services, about $141 billion.

All New Yorkers enrolled in the state’s single-payer health care program would only pay the taxes taken out of their income -- every other cost associated with health insurance and care would be covered under the program. The Health Act is similar to how health insurance and care works in Canada and several other countries around the world, automatically providing residents access to both.

The proposed tax would be based on a person’s ability to pay -- anyone making less than $25,000 a year would be exempt. Rand’s 2018 assessment estimated that the new tax would range between 6.1% and 18.3%, depending on income, for everyone else.

However, under this model, Rand estimated that 98% of New Yorkers would end up paying less for their health care than they do now.

The state would require that all residents enroll in the program, which would essentially make private insurance in New York obsolete. This includes those enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid as well -- with permission from the federal government, the state would use the funds it receives from the federal government for those existing programs to pay for executing the new single-payer system. That would be in addition to a payroll tax, some of which would come out of workers’ paychecks and vary depending on how much money they make annually, with higher taxes on those making more income. Employers would pay at least 80% of the tax on payroll, and employees would pay up to 20%.

In order to use the funding the state gets for Medicaid and Medicare for implementing the New York Health Act, the state would need to receive a waiver from the federal government. Assemblymember Gottfried said New York may be able to get that waiver under a Democratic presidential administration, but that the state can proceed with creating a single-payer system if the legislation is passed.

“It is very clear that even without federal cooperation, a state can create a single-payer system without losing any of our current federal funding. Federal cooperation would make it simpler but is not really necessary, legally or financially,” Gottfried said, noting that a Biden administration may be more open to the idea of single-payer in New York, but did not elaborate on how the state would be able to implement the plan without a waiver.

One of the most prominent voices regularly arguing against the New York Health Act is Hammond, who says that the real issue is containing health care costs, which requires different answers. Hammond and other opponents of the legislation argue that the necessary taxes could discourage the wealthy from living in New York, and that the shifts involved would be incredibly disruptive to the way insurance and care work in the state.

“The majority of people have private coverage, it's not really the state's responsibility to take care of that,” Hammond said in an interview. “They're taking care of it on their own, either with their own money or their employer's money.”

Medicaid enrollment is up by about half a million people after the pandemic led to thousands of New Yorkers losing their jobs and their employment-provided insurance. To some, this means there are already systems in place to ensure people have access to insurance and care.

Hammond said there are more important things that state legislators should be focused on instead of creating a single-payer health-care system.

“We have a deficit of unprecedented proportions. We are right now thinking about major cuts to existing spending on schools, and transportation and health care,” he said.

The state budget deficit is estimated to be around $14.5 billion in the current fiscal year, which runs through March. Legislators and advocates have been pushing tax increases on top earners and the wealthy to plug that gap as well as to help fund the New York Health Act and other progressive priorities.

According to Lev Ginsburg, Senior Director of Government Affairs at the Business Council of New York State, introducing another income tax now could drive businesses and the wealthy out of New York.

“We already see a lot of problems in New York State with companies relocating out of the state or not coming to the state because of various expensive burdens,” he said. “We think that it would be a true economic disaster to put it in place now.”

Government Regulation, Health Care, and Labor Unions
Advocates for universal health insurance and care coverage in New York say that the system already in place for both private and state insurance plans is confusing and hard to navigate. They also point to the battles people must wage with their health insurance companies to get coverage for care.

Elisabeth Benjamin, Vice President of Health Initiatives at the Community Service Society, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on advancing opportunity for underserved communities, said that the current pricing system for hospitals is the biggest indicator of why the state needs a single-payer health system.

Hospitals charge a person depending on what insurance they have, rather than establishing a fixed set of prices for every service they offer. This can result in patients paying different amounts based on the type of insurance they have, and can discourage them from seeking care.

“If the hospitals charge the health plans more, the health plans can charge the consumer more, right? No one has an incentive, actually, to control costs,” she said.

Benjamin believes that there should be more government regulation on how much hospitals can charge patients, and said a single-payer health-care system can help achieve that. There are proposals to mandate uniform hospital and health care charges without moving to a single-payer insurance and care system.

A report done by the Campaign for New York Health, an organization advocating for universal health coverage for all New Yorkers, found that 50% of those surveyed said they were on private health insurance but couldn’t afford to use it because of copay costs. Katie Robbins, Director of the Campaign for New York Health, said that rising health-care costs likely contributed to the spread of coronavirus in New York.

“It would be really critical for a better response to this kind of pandemic to make sure that people have coverage as a guaranteed right and they don't delay because they're afraid of how much the treatment is going to cost,” she said.

The New York Health Act has garnered the support of several labor unions in New York, including the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) and 1199 SEIU, a union for many health care and hospital workers. Both unions potentially see job security for their members in such a system.

Having health care off the bargaining table would allow the unions to negotiate better contracts for their members and potentially lead to a stronger union presence in New York, according to Judy Sheridan-González, the President of NYSNA.

“If unions seek out support for people, whether they're in their union or not, union density grows and union credibility is much more valued,” she said.

Sheridan-González said the passage of the New York Health Act could also lead to more job creation in the healthcare industry as a result of heightened demand for doctors.

“I certainly see it in primary care. I think that the initial phase-in, if people know that they don't have to pay anything, I think more people would access preventive care and primary care,” she said.

Not all unions are on board, however: the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has testified against the bill, most recently in 2019.

In a statement, NYSUT spokesperson Matthew Hamilton noted that the union supports efforts for universal health care, “especially during a public health crisis,” but that the union believes “a national health care system would be the most effective way to address this issue.”

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by Caroline Leddy, Gotham Gazette
  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

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The Covid Crisis Made the New York Health Act More Urgent, More Unlikely, or Both Mon, 23 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Democrats Hold Senate Majority, All of State Government; Here's What's on Their Agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9932-democrats-hold-senate-all-state-government-2021-agenda-nov-2020 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9932-democrats-hold-senate-all-state-government-2021-agenda-nov-2020 cuomo heastie stewart cousins

Gov. Cuomo, Speaker Heastie, Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins (photo: Governor's Office)


Despite facing tough battles in districts that they narrowly won two years ago and being on the verge of defeat in some places, Democrats also flipped a few seats and will grow their large majority in the State Senate, retaining control of both chambers of the Legislature by wide margins. Along with the ongoing tenure of third-term Governor Andrew Cuomo, Democrats will keep full control of New York state government through 2022, the next state election year.

This means the party will have the opportunity, however dominated by the coronavirus public health and socioeconomic crises the state faces, to build on its long list of liberal legislative action from the 2019-2020 session, the first with full Democratic control of state government in a decade.

Though they appear set to continue intra-party bickering and more substantive debate between moderates and those further to the left, the continued dominance of state government may embolden Democrats to pursue additional legislative priorities. And a new crop of progressive legislators, some members of the Demcoratic Socialists of America, will join both the Assembly and Senate, with plans to pull those majorities further left.

But it’s uncertain what Democrats running state government will prioritize and what they will be able to accomplish as New York continues to face dire financial straits caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps now more than ever policy and finances are inextricably linked, though there are some measures with minimal fiscal impact that legislators are eyeing for next session.

Even with Democrat Joe Biden winning the presidency and the party holding on to the majority in the House of Representatives, the fate of the U.S. Senate lies in two January runoff elections in Georgia, leaving the prospects for major financial aid to New York in limbo.

Before Biden is sworn in as president on January 20, the Legislature will be scheduled to return to session and Cuomo scheduled to outline his own 2021 agenda and budget proposals for the next fiscal year. But prior to that, Cuomo and other state officials must deal with a current fiscal year budget crisis that they have yet to solve.

What that process entails is, along with the immense question of federal aid, one of a number of variables and connected crises that will determine what is top of mind for Democrats in early 2021.

The first priority for the governor and Legislature will be to stabilize the state’s finances. Cuomo, who received significantly expanded budget powers under emergency legislation passed during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, has been holding back some local aid and other state spending, and putting off crucial larger decisions for months as he hopes for a next federal stimulus package. He has long-resisted calls, including from some legislators, to advance revenue-raising measures including tax hikes on the wealthy, holding out for more federal aid and saying he does not want to give top earners any more reason to leave New York for other states.

“We know the challenges facing our state, as we fight this pandemic and work to recover economically, are daunting," said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, at a news conference on Monday. "As we continue to confront this crisis, we know that the burden must be shared fairly, and that we must secure additional revenues, including help from our federal government, and that all this must be done without relying on our working and middle class families, our struggling small businesses.”

She added, "Our priority right now, quite honestly, is to get out of this budget situation that we're in, to get people COVID-free to the extent that we can, to get this virus under control and to get the economic situation in our state under control."

There continues to be some slim hope for a lame-duck federal package before January 20, but Cuomo and others have expressed more optimism for what Biden may be able to negotiate once he takes power, whether with a split Congress or two Democratic chambers.

In an August 31 letter to Congress, Cuomo and labor leaders said the state needs at least $59 billion to cover the current fiscal year and next, a total covering state government, local governments, and state-affiliated authorities like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has been seeking its own $12 billion federal bailout.

“There is no combination of state efforts that will address this financial crisis without federal assistance,” they wrote. “Even if state and local governments cut expenses, increase taxes, and reduced services, the revenue shortfall would still be in the billions of dollars. Moreover, forcing state and local governments to take such actions would only further the pain and extend the period of time for the nation's economy to recover.”

Cuomo has withheld or held off on cutting tens of billions of dollars in local aid.

Many of the issues that Democrats in Albany confront will hinge on what any federal aid package looks like, and when it may come, if at all. For instance, a push for cancelling rent for thousands of New Yorkers to avoid an eviction crisis may fail without an infusion of funds. Any potential debate about providing universal health care in the state will likely be marginalized if the state is deeply in the hole. New taxes or increases in existing ones may be unnecessary if budget gaps are covered. "The reality is that we have a huge deficit and we need a lot of answers. And most of those good answers need to come from our federal government,” Stewart-Cousins said.

What also remains to be seen is how far left the new Democratic conferences in each chamber will swing. Several newly elected progressive Assembly members from New York City unseated long-term establishment Democrats in the primaries with support from the Working Families Party (WFP) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), among other left-wing groups. But that majority is quite large -- well over 100 out of 150 seats -- and while it is dominated by New York City members, Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx has always governed in a collaborative fashion with the more moderate Senate majority and Cuomo.

In the Senate, a mix of moderates and progressives will join or return to the conference, but Democrats may be emboldened by the fact that they passed many liberal priorities of the past two years and only added to their large majority. State Senator-elect Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn, an outspoken democratic socialist, is among those heading to Albany from the city who plan on pulling the Legislature to the left.

There are a slew of bills and policies, some revenue-related and others less so, some with more support from the leaders of the party and others pushed staunchly by the activist wing, that Democrats are poised to consider as the new Legislature is seated. Some have emerged as a consequence of the pandemic. Others have lingered from years past and from the previous session. Some were pushed hard by the insurgents who just won contested primaries, others were Cuomo’s priorities before the pandemic hit.

But because of the pandemic, taking stock of the election results and ascertaining any real 2021 “agenda” for Albany Democrats -- beyond salvaging the state’s finances and thus ensuring government programs happen, state government continues to function and local governments are funded -- is difficult. While there are important clues in the early, pre-pandemic 2020 agendas put forth by Cuomo and the legislative majorities, as well as policies promised by winning Democratic candidates, so much will indeed hinge on the state fiscal picture, what comes from Washington, D.C., and, potentially, where the debate over state tax policy lands.

Spokespeople for Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

While new items are likely to emerge or gain momentum, here’s a rundown of what Democrats may have on their 2021 state government agenda.

Marijuana Legalization
The legalization and taxation of marijuana for recreational use by adults has been a priority for Democrats for years, and Governor Cuomo has also embraced it in the last two budget sessions both as a criminal justice reform and a potential revenue-raiser that could eventually bring in more than $300 million for state coffers annually.

The governor and Democrat-led Legislature could not come to an agreement on legalization in either 2019 or 2020, though they did decriminalize possession to a degree earlier this year. The sticking point appears to be the amount of revenue that is re-invested in communities that have been most negatively impacted by marijuana criminalization and the larger “war on drugs.”

As neighboring states have moved towards legalization – New Jersey voters approved a ballot referendum on marijuana legalization on Tuesday – the governor has pursued the policy with more urgency as well and recently indicated it is something of a must for 2021. The issue will likely be a prominent agenda item in the upcoming legislative session, particularly as it could provide some help to fill the budget deficit the state faces, though mostly not until the industry is built out in future years.

Taxes
As the pandemic has devastated low-income New Yorkers and blown a hole in the state budget, there has been a growing clamor from left-wing Democrats and grassroots progressive activists to increase taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers. Cuomo, however, has long been opposed to most new or increased taxes, and believes that such proposals would drive higher-income New Yorkers to migrate to states with lower tax rates.

Both the Senate and Assembly legislative leaders, Majority Leader Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Carl Heastie, have expressed support for increasing taxes on millionaires and billionaires, but neither chamber nor the two in collaboration have moved to force the governor’s hand.

A newer class of progressive Democrats have also become a prominent bloc in the Senate and several of them have vowed to pursue new tax legislation rather than allow broad cuts to local aid and state services, as Cuomo has threatened to do. The incoming Assembly members who ran on progressive platforms to beat incumbents and other more moderate legislators have also vowed to pursue several revenue-raisers. While the Assembly Democrats have long advanced higher taxes on top earners, the Senate has joined Cuomo with more opposition. This summer, Stewart-Cousins announced a revenue working group, but it has not produced any recommendations.

Renter Protections and Homlessness Prevention
Millions of New Yorkers lost their jobs during the pandemic and though the governor placed temporary moratoriums on both residential and commercial rent evictions, hundreds of thousands of households and thousands of businesses are at risk of eviction as their rent piled up for months. Legislators and activists have been calling for a ‘cancellation’ of rents for those who’ve lost significant income and become unable to pay, but the state doesn’t have the fiscal ability to make landlords whole. Federal aid for this purpose would likely be necessary for the state to move ahead.

While much related to rent relief will depend on federal aid, there has been an ongoing call from some for a “good cause” eviction bill, which was not approved by the Legislature amid its passage of a massive package of rent protection in 2019, a package that mostly applied to those in rent-regulated apartments. The bill would give tenants of all kinds the right to renew a lease except in certain specific circumstances as well as restrict rent increases past a set threshold.

Meanwhile, Queens Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s proposed Home Stability Support legislation promises to be a strong deterrent against homelessness by increasing the value of rental vouchers for those on public assistance. But the bill has failed to move through the Legislature even in good fiscal times. Though it may be more necessary now than ever before, as more families are availing themselves of welfare benefits and a potential tsunami of evictions looms on the horizon, the state doesn’t have the cash flow to fund it without receiving significant federal assistance or significantly increasing taxes. Still, Hevesi and others are likely to continue pushing for the measure.

Voting and Election Reforms
With long lines during early voting and with the New York City Board of Elections making massive mistakes with absentee ballot mailings, the presidential election yet again prompted scrutiny of New York State’s election laws, which dictate the city BOE’s antiquated structure, and administrative procedures. Elected officials and advocates want to see changes to everything from voter registration to the structure of the BOE.

Though the Democrat-led Legislature has approved a slew of reforms to expand voting and improve election administration, there’s much left to be done. Among pending measures are same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots, both of which require amendments to the state constitution. The Legislature has already voted both proposals through and must pass them again before placing them on the ballot for voter approval.

New York is among the states that also takes the longest to count absentee ballots, with counting beginning a week after Election Day. State Senator Mike Gianaris has proposed legislation that would mandate that the count begins on election day.

Reforming the BOE is a harder task, requiring a state constitutional amendment as well. The agency is partisan by nature, with an equal number of commissioners appointed by Democrats and Republicans, the two parties receiving the largest number of votes in elections. Though it is the New York City BOE that has been the subject of most criticism, restructuring it would require state action and there are powerful establishment interests, particularly Heastie, the former head of the Bronx Democratic Party, who do not seem inclined to act.

Education Funding
In recent budget sessions, Governor Cuomo has attempted to change the way the state hands out Foundation Aid to struggling schools in less well-off districts, as required by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity state court decision in 2006. He proposed an “education equity” formula that would send more money to poorer schools by reallocating funds but not by significantly increasing foundation aid. While the proposal has some support from fiscal watchdogs, education advocates say it will underfund poorer schools in low-income communities of color.

Cuomo did not seem to push especially hard to implement the new formula this year. It remains to be seen if he will attempt to do so next year, even as he threatens to cut billions from local aid, including education.

Another Cuomo idea that failed last year was the expansion of eligibility for the state’s Excelsior Scholarship for tuition-free public college. The governor proposed increasing the income threshold from $125,000 in gross family income to $150,000. Without federal aid, there’s a chance that the program may in fact be cut next year. 

Individual and Group Legal Protections
Last year, the governor sought to pass a bill that would close the so-called rape intoxication loophole, which makes it difficult to prosecute sexual assault when a victim is voluntarily intoxicated and cannot provide consent. But the measure was not approved in the state budget after the two legislative chambers failed to come to an agreement on the bill. The Senate and the governor’s office pledged to continue to advance it and could possibly take it up next year.

Governor Cuomo also proposed an expansive Equal Rights Amendment for the state, which would prevent discrimination by adding a list of protected categories to the state’s bill of rights including sex, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Though the Senate has approved a proposal similar to Cuomo’s, the Assembly has repeatedly passed a much narrower version. As with any amendment, it would need to pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions before being placed on the ballot.

Gig Worker Protections
Last year, Cuomo promised to pursue protections for workers in the gig economy but failed to follow through, and he did not advance anything again this year. Over the years, lawmakers have proposed legislation but none has seen much movement.

Recent proposals have been based on the AB5 measure passed in California that created an “ABC test” for worker classification. That measure, which prevented misclassification of workers as independent contractors, experienced a major blow after California voters approved a ballot proposal, Proposition 22, in this year’s general election that rolled back some of the protections established under the law. Companies like Uber and Lyft bankrolled a $200 million campaign to promote the passage of that measure.

Criminal Justice Reform
Last year, the state Legislature approved a package of criminal justice reforms – including speedy trial, discovery, and bail reforms – that were broadly praised by progressives but faced opposition from some moderate Democrats, Republicans, and powerful law enforcement unions. Pieces of the reforms, notably on bail, were rolled back earlier this year, but the legislation was a major focus of Republicans in state legislative races, especially in Brooklyn, Long Island, and Hudson Valley swing districts. Yet Democrats appear to have prevailed in most of those races.

Activists are calling for reform that would improve conditions for those in detention, and the pandemic has only added urgency to their calls as jails and prisons became clusters of COVID-19 infections. Among the measures they want to see passed is an elder parole bill that would make any inmate above the age of 55 who has served 15 years in prison eligible for parole, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act which would end the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, among other things, and the Less Is More Act, which would prevent a person on parole for being lcoked up for non-criminal technical parole violations such as missing curfew or a failed drug test.

Another pending issue for reform advocates that are part of the “DecrimNY” coalition is the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, which would decriminalize sex work. Though the issue of decriminalization has slowly gained footing, it hasn’t yet been embraced by Democrats writ large. The coalition is also opposed by the New Yorkers for the Equality Model coalition, who would rather see legislation that ends enforcement against sex workers but still prosecutes those who pay for sex.

Police Reform
In the wake of the national protests after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers earlier this year, the Legislature and governor enacted several long-stalled reforms to policing including a repeal of a state statute that prevented the public disclosure of police officers’ disciplinary records and outlawing chokeholds by law enforcement.

But police reformers have said their work is far from over and they want to see several other measures enacted at the state and city levels. Governor Cuomo issued an executive order mandating that all municipalities pass police reinvention plans that are submitted to the state in order to get any state funds for policing. Mayor Bill de Blasio has already announced that he will work with the New York City Council to advance a new package of police reforms to be voted on in summer 2021, building on a number of reforms that were approved this summer.

Advocates have called for ending the qualified immunity doctrine that protects police officers from civil lawsuits over misconduct. State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, has also pledged to introduce legislation that would accomplish that.

New York Health Act
The New York Health Act, which would provide universal, single-payer healthcare coverage to all New Yorkers, is another piece of legislation that some say has never been more urgent than now, as the state continues to battle the pandemic and begins a slow path to recovery, and with many having lost their employment-based health insurance. But it would necessitate a major overhaul of the state’s health insurance and health care sectors, major tax increases (offset for most New Yorkers by savings on health insurance and care), and was a long-shot even during good economic times. Governor Cuomo has long opposed the New York Health Act as too costly and too disruptive, while saying he favors single-payer health care on the national level.

Even before the pandemic, the bill carried a huge price tag, though it eventually would create billions in savings for the state. A study by the RAND Corporation showed that a single-payer healthcare system would require an additional $139 billion in state tax revenue in 2022.

Environmental Bond Act
Earlier this year, the governor advanced and the Legislature approved a $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act to promote environmental restoration and climate resiliency projects. But the bond act needs to be approved by voters through a ballot question and, as the pandemic devastated the state’s finances, the governor pulled the proposal. Advocates from more than a hundred organizations recently held a virtual lobbying event to push for the bond to be placed on the ballot next year.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with comments from Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. 

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Democrats Hold Senate Majority, All of State Government; Here's What's on Their Agenda Sun, 22 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Liz Krueger on Next Steps in the Covid Fight https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9919-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-liz-krueger-next-steps-covid-fight https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9919-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-liz-krueger-next-steps-covid-fight 4 st kru

Senator Liz Krueger (photo: NY Senate)


November 18, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Liz Krueger on Next Steps in the Covid Fight

State Senator Liz Krueger joined the show to discuss the next steps in New York's fight against the coronavirus.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

Max & Murphy · Episode 261: State Senator Liz Krueger On Next Steps In The Covid Fight

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Liz Krueger on Next Steps in the Covid Fight Wed, 18 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Concerns Over Budget Cuts to State Court System Amid Massive Case Backlog https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9904-legislature-hearing-budget-cuts-new-york-state-courts https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9904-legislature-hearing-budget-cuts-new-york-state-courts 2 leg exa

Gov. Cuomo and Chief Judge Difiore (photo: governor's office)


Members of the New York State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee held a virtual hearing on Thursday to examine the impacts of a proposed $300 million cut to the state judiciary’s budget. The reduction, which represents a 10% cut to the court system’s $3 billion budget for the current fiscal year, was announced by the Office of Court Administration (OAC) in September in response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s directive that all state entities reduce their budgets by 10% to mitigate the budgetary effects of economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor has held off on finalizing more sweeping budget cuts while lobbying for a major aid package from Washington, hopes that were buoyed by Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.

Witnesses at the hearing, which was led by Committee Char Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat, warned that the proposed budget reduction could have far-reaching effects on the state’s court system, from exacerbating case backlogs to accelerating staffing shortages. Testimony was focused in particular on the decision by the OCA‘s administrative board not to approve 46 of the 49 older judges who applied for recertification for the upcoming calendar year. Judges who wish to serve on the bench beyond the state’s mandatory retirement age of 70 must apply to the OCA for recertification every two years until they reach 76. Judges who are not granted recertification must vacate their positions by December 31, which is three-quarters of the way through the current fiscal year.

Michael Regan, Chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Council on Judicial Administration, said the impending loss of the 46 judges will further hinder the courts’ ability to process the case backlog created by the pandemic. As of August, the state courts were facing a backlog of nearly 200,000 pre-pandemic cases.

“The loss of these 46 senior and experienced judges will have an immediate and significant impact on our court system,” said Regan. “As proceedings have already been delayed by the pandemic, caseloads and backlogs are rising, there is an increasing demand for access to the courts, and there is a need for an adequate number of experienced judges to handle the growing inventory of old and new cases.”

Representatives of the OCA declined to participate in the hearing, citing ongoing litigation over its decision not to recertify judges.

On November 5, five of the judges who were denied recertification filed a lawsuit against the OCA in Suffolk County State Supreme Court, alleging that the OCA’s “arbitrary and capricious” decision violated New York’s prohibition on age-based discrimination.

Assemblymember Dinowitz and other members of the committee expressed their frustration with the OCA’s absence.

“I am disappointed that OCA has chosen not to participate this morning in the hearting,” said Dinowitz in his opening remarks before the committee. “Time is of the essence on some of the issues, certainly concerning the termination of 46 judges, and waiting several weeks might make the issue moot. And as they say, justice delayed is justice denied.”

New York is currently facing a budget deficit of roughly $14.5 billion for the current fiscal year, with the state’s budget office expecting the deficit to expand to nearly $62 billion between now and 2024. If approved by Governor Cuomo, the proposed reduction would be the largest to the judiciary’s budget since the 2011-2012 fiscal year, when the judiciary lost $170 million from its budget amid a different state budget crisis.

In a letter announcing the planned cuts, Judge Marks said that the OCA’s decision not to recertify the 46 judges would trim $55 million from the judiciary’s expenditures. The court system has also implemented a hiring freeze, eliminated all “non-personal service” spending, and deferred all substantial payments in an effort to limit spending.

Critics of the OCA’s decision charged that the board’s choice not to recertify the judges was premature, given that the proposed budget reductions have not been finalized by the governor and that the state is still waiting to learn if it will receive fiscal aid from the U.S. Congress through a proposed federal stimulus package.

Witnesses also said that the OCA’s decision came at a particularly inopportune moment, as state courts struggle to navigate the legal and logistical difficulties created by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Reducing the number of judges on the bench and their staff should be [the administration’s] last resort when considering budget cuts,” said Hon. Charles C. Merrell, the president of Association of Justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. “The courts are overburdened especially with imposed delays and suspensions imposed by the pandemic. When [these restrictions] are lifted, the influx of cases is expected to be staggering. This is not a good time to slash the judiciary by 10%.”

Jesus Zeno, a representative of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, said that loss of the 46 judges, 17% of whom were people of color, also risks exacerbating racial and other demographic disparities on the bench. A study released in October by the Special Advisor on Equal Justice in the New York State Courts found that 58.1% of New York City judges are white, while only 31.7% of the city’s population identifies as white.

“Collectively, the loss of these seven to eight judges of color will diminish the strides that have been made to diversify the judicial positions in the New York State court system,” Zeno said. “As a result, the ripple effects of their loss will remain with us for many years to come.”

Zeno also warned that the budget reductions could create new difficulties for litigants and defendants, including delayed court dates, longer processing periods, and diminished access to state-sponsored legal services. According to Zeno, these difficulties would disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color who have already been hit hardest by the pandemic. 

“It’s going to be devastating to the minority community and to those people who do not have the means for adequate representation,” said Zeno. “Those cases may take longer because many of the individuals who appear in family court are pro se, and many of the defendants in tenant court are pro se, so those pro se litigants who do not have the skills or the means to defend a case, they’re going to put on the back burner.” 

The budget reduction would also put a burden on the court system’s approximately 15,000 non-judicial employees, including court reporters, court officers, and judicial clerks, many of whom fear layoffs, pay reductions, or further staffing decreases.

“The reason the judicial system has not been crushed during the pandemic is because we, the court employees, are there,” said Eric Allen, President of the Association of Supreme Court Reporters Within the City of New York. “If layoffs were to occur, and employees are not there, Lady Justice would not only be blind, she would be rendered paralyzed."

***
by Ian Ward for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this article has been corrected to accurately note the demographics for New York City judges dound in the October report.

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Concerns Over Budget Cuts to State Court System Amid Massive Case Backlog Thu, 12 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
After Significant Help for State Senate Democrats in 2018, Cuomo Largely Absent from 2020 Races https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9884-cuomo-help-state-senate-democrats-2018-absent-2020-races https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9884-cuomo-help-state-senate-democrats-2018-absent-2020-races Cuomo state senate Democrats Gounardes

Gov. Cuomo with now-State Senator Andrew Gounardes in Oct. 2018 (photo: Cuomo/Flickr)


After flipping several State Senate seats in 2018 and taking control of the upper legislative chamber and therefore all of state government, Democrats sought to hold onto their wide majority this year even with a Republican president atop the ticket. They believed they might be able to win a supermajority in the chamber to match that of Democrats in the Assembly by picking up at least two additional Senate seats, if not more.

But as Senate Democrats faced tough races in a number of districts, including some they had won by narrow margins amid a “blue wave” two years ago, New York’s top Democrat seemed to take a relatively hands off approach and did what some believe is the bare minimum to help his party-mates defend or win new seats.

Though in 2018, when he was on top of the ticket seeking a third term, Governor Andrew Cuomo was active helping Democrats flip State Senate seats in swing districts from Brooklyn to Long Island to the Hudson Valley, this year he was absent but for a handful of virtual fundraising events and robocalls. Some Democrats believe he mostly prefers the split Legislature he had for his first two terms and very much wanted to avoid the possibility of veto-proof majorities in the two legislative houses.

As the vote-counting moves to absentee ballots, which are expected to significantly favor Democrats, there is a long list of State Senate races that haven’t been called. Overall, Democrats are confident that while they may lose a few seats back to Republicans they are also on the verge of picking up others and will wind up with a majority close but not quite as large as what they had coming into the election: 40 seats in the 63-seat chamber. Republicans believe they are narrowing the margin to 36-27, perhaps slimmer.

To get to that 40-seat majority, the 2018 elections saw several progressive Democrats eject more moderate members of the party in primaries while relatively moderate Democrats flipped Republican seats in the general. Cuomo was a significant presence in the latter, rallying with Democratic nominees in parts of the state where he remains popular but Republicans have had success and that he would need in his own reelection bid, which he went on to win by a wide margin.

The 2018 State Senate results set the stage, along with Cuomo’s win and continued Democratic dominance in the Assembly, for the passage of a long list of progressive priorities in 2019.

This year, despite Democrats’ hope that they could pick up as many as ten Senate seats, defend seven, and be competitive in a few others, it was bound to be a tough election. With President Donald Trump on the ballot, Republican turnout was undoubtedly going to be far higher than in 2018 even if Democrats voted in higher numbers too. And despite a fundraising and expenditure advantage for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, there were millions being spent against them in targeted independent expenditures by outside entities, including billionaire Ron Lauder and law enforcement unions, who opposed criminal justice reforms enacted by the Democrat-led Legislature and governor. Lauder, a prominent donor to Cuomo, alone spent nearly $5 million while police unions spent more than $1 million in trying to inaccurately paint Democrats as anti-police and pro-crime.

To some observers, the governor made minimal effort to help Democrats on the receiving end of that spending and even less so in challenging Republican messaging statewide about a Democrat-controlled Legislature run amok. Many have even speculated that Lauder’s independent expenditures had the governor’s tacit approval. “That’s bullshit,” said Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesperson, in an email, when presented with those arguments.

Azzopardi insisted that the governor did his best to help Democrats’ chances. The governor endorsed a slate of candidates including Senators John Brooks, Todd Kaminsky, Monica Martinez, Anna Kaplan, Jim Gaughran, Kevin Thomas, and Pete Harckham, and nominees Sean Ryan and Laura Ahern. He recorded robocalls and made appearances at virtual fundraisers for Kaplan, Martinez, Gaughran, Thomas, and Harckham, and made additional virtual fundraising appearances for Senator Kaminsky and nominees Karen Smythe, Samra Brouk, and Jacqualine Berger, and signed a fundraising letter for nominee Jeremy Cooney.

“In what world, during a pandemic when you can't barnstorm and do rallies – if you look at that list of endorsements, robocalls and fundraisers – can they say he didn't do enough,” Azzopardi said in a subsequent phone interview. “It’s ridiculous.”

“The governor worked really hard to bring this majority in under his ticket in 2018,” Azzopardi added. “And we worked really hard to maintain it. Let all the votes be counted and let's see where it goes...We did a lot together. We did a lot of good for the state of New York. And we look forward to working with the Senate Democratic majority next year.”

While no one expected Cuomo to travel the state holding large rallies amid the coronavirus pandemic, the governor did no in-person campaign events. At the same time, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, Cuomo's running-mate and “partner in government,” did barnstorm the state, holding campaign appearances with several Democratic candidates in tough races -- including Brooklyn’s Andrew Gounardes, whom Cuomo campaigned with in 2018 as he flipped a Senate seat but is noticeably absent from the governor’s 2020 list. Cuomo made at least three appearances with Gounardes in October and November 2018, but none, whether virtual or in-person, in 2020. Hochul campaigned with Gounardes in Brooklyn the day before Election Day this year.

Overall, Cuomo opted against joining Democratic candidates in person to bring local and media attention to their campaigns and boost their messages.

A source in the State Democratic Party said the governor was “somewhat helpful” with his fundraisers and endorsements. “But it's a little bit like it's almost just for show,” the source said, noting that the State Democratic Party, which is controlled by Cuomo, could have done more.

“The state party could have done mailers, done TV...there could have been more money spent, more sort-of consolidated or coordinated messaging,” the source said, pointing out that while the state party gave massive contributions to specific candidates, they paled in comparison to the Lauder spending. “The money thing is the big thing. You have states around the country where the state party literally will drop millions of dollars into these local races,” said the source, who insisted on anonymity in order to speak freely.

While Cuomo had transferred campaign funds to some Democrats in 2018, he did not do so this cycle even though, as of July, he had more than $13 million in campaign cash. The State Democratic Party did transfer funds to candidates in the closing weeks of the election – $50,000 each to Thomas and Gaughran and $25,000 to Monica Martinez. None of those numbers account for the money Cuomo helped some candidates raise via his appearances at the virtual fundraisers.

Tom Staudter, a spokesperson for Harckham’s campaign, said the governor’s assistance was definitely helpful. “Governor Cuomo was a big help to Senator Harckham’s campaign,” he said. “In our district, there were only positives. His leadership during the pandemic was recognized as safeguarding and benefiting our residents and I know Senator Harckham is looking forward to partnering with the governor in the future.” Though Harckham trails by about 7,000 votes after in-person vote tallies, there are still 40,000 absentee ballots to count in the district, and Staudter expects that a major portion of those will be from Democrats.

In an interview on the Max & Murphy podcast prior to the election, State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs made a similar argument to Azzopardi. “He's doing a lot. The governor’s been on fundraising zooms. He’s given me the request to raise money through the state party and he said use his name to raise money. I've done just that,” Jacobs said. “So he's been very helpful and he's been giving guidance and strategic advice. What he can't do is hold big rallies, like Trump does around the country, which I know he'd like to do and he's done in the past. This environment just won't permit it.”

Almost exclusively standing by while Democrats got relentlessly attacked by Republicans and their outside allies would seem counterintuitive for a Democratic governor. But Cuomo has never been one to easily share power or attention with members of his own party and has, in the past, appeared content to preside over a split Legislature where he can mostly call the shots without getting pulled too far to the left. He has oftentimes rebuffed progressive policies proposed by Democrats, slowly embracing them once they become too popular to oppose or appear especially advantageous politically. Prior to Democrats flipping the Senate, he triangulated with an erstwhile rogue offshoot of moderate Democrats who called themselves the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which helped Republicans control the legislative chamber and was seen by many as a Cuomo-backed effort. 

A supermajority in the Senate, combined with that already in the Assembly, would allow Democrats stronger negotiating position on legislative and budget matters, and to override the governor’s veto if they pursue legislation that Cuomo rejected.

“Cuomo has always preferred working with Republicans than working with Democrats,” said Benjamin Rosenblatt, president of Tidal Wave Strategies, a political consulting firm. “We saw that when he helped gerrymander the State Senate map for Republicans. We saw that when he helped them with the IDC, with majorities over and over again. And we saw that this time when his billionaire friends bankrolled efforts to stop Democrats from getting a State Senate supermajority.”

Rosenblatt said Cuomo could have used his popularity, particularly in parts of the state such as Long Island, to help boost incumbent Democrats who are now uncertain about their victories. “That could have helped push Democrats over the line when they are facing these attacks against them, trying to connect them to [New York City Mayor] Bill de blasio, saying that they're anti-police,” he said.

Cuomo himself conceded on Thursday that the statewide Republican campaign had a strong impact, though he appeared to be speaking as a casual observer that had no role to play. “It shouldn't have been this close,” he said on WAMC radio with host Alan Chartock. “I believe the Republicans beat the Democrats on the messaging. I think they branded Democrats as anti-law and order. And that hurt Democrats. It was untrue.”

As Cuomo seemingly watched that messaging unfold across the state, including in districts where he had campaigned with Democrats in 2018, he was not moved to be more assertive in helping his party-mates beat back the focused, sustained barrage from Republicans.

Cuomo also pointed to how Republicans tied Democratic candidates to de Blasio, who has been widely unpopular in the state for years and who undertook a failed effort to flip the State Senate from Republican control in 2014 that led to an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney over questionable fundraising tactics. No charges were filed. “They ran de Blasio’s picture all over the state. ‘They'll turn New York State into New York City, looting and crime and homelessness...That was their message and it resonated more than it should have,” said Cuomo, who has himself repeatedly painted New York City in such negative light during his press briefings over the past several months.

Asked about Cuomo’s comments at his daily news briefing on Thursday, de Blasio dismissed them. “I think whatever the Republicans did was pretty modest honestly,” he said, joking that in the future he would endorse Republicans to cause confusion.

Some political observers pointed out that many Republicans used images of Cuomo on their negative campaign literature.

Unlike Cuomo, Hochul kept a busy campaign schedule as election day neared. She appeared at events for State Senate incumbents Gounardes, Harckham, and Thomas, and candidates Berger, Brouk, Ryan, and John Mannion. Without the absentee ballot counts, only Brouk and Ryan are ahead in their races.

In 2018, on the other hand, Cuomo launched a concerted effort to help Democrats flip both the State Senate and the House of Representatives. With much fanfare, he appeared with State Senate seats on Long Island and together signed a nine-point pledge of policies they would pursue. He publicly endorsed Gounardes in similar fashion in Southern Brooklyn, with a slightly modified pledge more focused on New York City. Gounardes went on to replace Martin Golden, then the only Republican State Senator in the five boroughs outside of Staten Island, after winning by just 1,271 votes.

Gounardes is now at risk of losing his seat, running behind Republican challenger Vito Bruno by about 6,000 votes after the in-person tally, a deficit he has a shot at making up through absentee ballots that number more than 18,500.

In Southern Brooklyn, where Republicans did well against Democrats at the state and federal levels, though outcomes are still being determined through the absentee ballot count, Cuomo’s government actions ahead of the election may have hurt Democrats politically. 

“In 2018, he came out here and campaigned with everybody and was actively trying to gain more seats in the Senate,” said a Democratic source in Southern Brooklyn who requested anonymity to speak freely. “And this time around, it was the opposite. There was no presence out here at all.” What made it worse, on top of the Lauder-funded ads, the source said, was Cuomo’s botched rollout of new lockdown restrictions in response to localized coronavirus infection spikes that angered constituents in those districts. “It was a lot of incoming,” the source said of Republican attacks. “We took on a lot of water and there was very little air support.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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After Significant Help for State Senate Democrats in 2018, Cuomo Largely Absent from 2020 Races Sun, 08 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The State of Play in the State Senate as the 2020 Election Moves to Counting Absentee Ballots https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9882-state-of-play-new-york-state-senate-2020-election-count-absentee-ballots https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9882-state-of-play-new-york-state-senate-2020-election-count-absentee-ballots New York State Senate chambers almost empty

The New York State Senate chambers (photo: NY Senate)


Though hundreds of thousands of votes across New York are still to be counted and many races are not yet called, it appears certain that Democrats will retain the majority in the State Senate that they won two years ago, and by a fairly wide margin. But, Republicans seem poised to regain several seats in the chamber to narrow what has been an exceptionally wide 40-23 seat margin and keep Democrats from expanding it to what they hoped would be a veto-proof supermajority.

With a comfortable hold on the State Assembly and the governor’s office, Democrats will continue to control state government for at least the next two years.

But with the 2020 election heading toward counting of absentee and other paper ballots, a number of State Senate races remain up in the air.

Unofficial election night results showed Democrats winning at least 28 State Senate seats and Republicans winning 9. With about 1.2 million absentee ballots cast statewide in the election and with counting of those ballots set to only begin next week, it’s too early to tell how the rest of the 26 races will end up.

Early indications show that Republicans seem to have a lead in several competitive districts home to first-term Democratic senators, meaning the Democratic majority could be diminished by as many as five seats. Republican Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said Wednesday he believes his conference will have at least 27 seats when the dust settles.

Going into the election, Democrats held 40 seats and Republicans held 20 seats in the 63-seat Senate, while three seats most recently held by Republicans were left vacant based on retirements or resignations.

Democrats were hoping to pick up ten seats, particularly “open” seats where there had been Republican retirements and the districts held a Democratic voter enrollment advantage. Democrats were also on the defensive in several seats. It remains to be seen how all those districts will shake out.

“Despite a difficult night for many Democratic candidates throughout the state and nation, the Senate Democratic Conference comfortably retained our majority and will be welcoming a historic group of new upstate Democrats to the Senate,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat who was just reelected, in a statement. “With the record high number of outstanding absentee ballots that are overwhelmingly Democratic, we will add even more victories to our majority as the vote counts continue. The Senate Democratic Majority will continue to lead New York State forward as we recover from this pandemic and economic crisis.”

In a Wednesday appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio program, Deputy Majority leader Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who also won reelection this week, expressed confidence that there are an “overwhelming” number of Democratic votes that were cast in absentee ballots. “Given our projections, we fully expected that some of these close races we were going to be behind on election night and ultimately win,” he said. “That's the posture we're in right now. We secured 36 seats comfortably so the majority is intact with a sizeable cushion. That number is going to grow because there are eight or so districts where we still believe we can overtake the Republicans.”

On the Republican side, Minority Leader Ortt, speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, saw the early results as an indication that voters are disaffected with Democrats. “What you saw last night was a repudiation of one party rule,” he said, confident that the party will win up to 29 seats once all votes are counted.

Along with the Senate races, he also pointed to the party’s victory in some congressional seats held by Democrats. “That is a huge, huge signal, I think certainly to the leadership of the majority of the State Senate that the people of New York, of all political stripes, did not like what they saw the last two years,” Ortt said. “And they want to see something different. They want to see more balance, they want to see checks.”

In seven districts where Democrats had expressed confidence about picking up seats previously held by Republicans, the results are mixed so far. The in-person vote tallies do not account for significant numbers of absentee ballots, leaving a lot unknown for the time being. The State BOE provided a snapshot of absentee ballot numbers as of November 6, though absentee ballots were continuing to be delivered and those numbers were likely to change.  

In District 1, Republican nominee Assemblymember Anthony Palumbo leads with 54.08%, or 74,289 votes, against Democrat Laura Ahearn, who has received 55,554 votes, about 40.44%. There were 32,485 absentee ballots returned by voters in the district. Of those, 15,508 were from Democratic voters, 7,322 from Republicans and 7,588 from independent voters. 

In District 41, incumbent Republican Senator Sue Serino is ahead with 56.49%, or 68,907 votes, against Democrat Karen Smythe, who has 49,477 votes, about 40.56%. This is Smythe’s second time challenging Serino. In 2018, Serino won by only 688 votes. 30,712 voters have returned absentee ballots, including 16,088 Democratic voters, 5,580 Republican voters, and 7,166 independent voters.   

In District 46, Republican Richard Amedure has received 66,784 votres, about 51.19%, compared to Democrat Michelle Hinchey, who has 58,613 votes, or 44.93% so far. There were 25,987 absentee ballots returned from 13,311 Democratic voters, 4,980 Republican voters, and 5,910 independent voters. 

In District 50, Republican Angi Renna leads with 63,299 votes, about 51.45%, against Democrat John Mannion, who has 56,071 votes, about 45.57%. There are 37,149 absentee ballots left to be counted from 17,127 Democrats, 9,286 Republicans and 8,450 independents. 

In District 55, Democrat Samra Brouk has the lead with 59,560 votes, about 49.88%, against Republican Chris Missick, who has received 54,504 votes, about 45.65%. Voters returned 42,443 absentee ballots in the district – 21,018 came from Democrats, 9,141 from Republicans and 8,982 from independents. 

In District 56, Democrat Jeremy Cooney has a marginal lead, with 46,469 votes, about 47.16%, over Republican Mike Barry Jr., who is just behind with 45,587 votes, about 46.27 %. There were 32,578 absentee ballots returned from the district including 16,444 from Democrats, 7,017 from Republicans and 7,108 from independents.  

In District 60, Democrat Sean Ryan has won 68,633 votes, about 54.32%, leading against Republican Joshua Mertzlufft, who is far behind with 52,391 votes, about 41.47%. Ryan may well keep his lead as the 26,729 absentee ballots in the district are counted. Most of the absentees, 15,347 to be exact, were from Democratic voters, while 5,076 were from Republicans and 4,517 were from independents. 

In three districts, Democrats felt they had a solid chance of flipping Republicans seats but the current vote tallies, without the absentee counts, look promising for the GOP.

In District 4, incumbent Republican Phil Boyle has a strong lead with 69,199 votes, about 55.49%, against Democratic challenger former Assemblymember Christine Pellegrino, who has received 46,464 votes, about 37.26 %. There were 19,717 absentee ballots from the district, including from 9,495 Democrats, 4,747 Republicans and 4,363 independent voters. 

In District 51, Republican Peter Oberacker has won 57.01%, or 64,014 votes, so far, while Democrat Jim Barber trails with 37.70%, or 42,336 votes. Voters returned 20,264 absentee ballots, including 9,020 Democrats, 5,742 Republicans and 4,281 independents.  

In District 61, Republican Ed Rath already has 57.81%, or 64,887 votes, against Democrat Jacqualine Berger, who has received 36.81%, or 41,314 votes. Of the 31,628 absentee ballots returned in the district, 16,121 were from Democratic voters, 7,635 from Republicans and 5,987 from independents.  

Republicans fielded competitive candidates in several races, particularly challenging first-time Democrats elected in 2018 in relatively moderate districts. Almost all of those challenges seem like they could yield seats.

In District 3, Republican challenger Alexis Weik leads with 53.01%, or 59,155 votes, against first-term incumbent Democratic Senator Monica Martinez, who has received 40.68%, or 45,388 votes so far. There were 20,012 absentee ballots returned, including 9,715 from Democrats, 4,693 from Republicans, and 4,416 from independents. 

In District 5, Republican candidate Edmund Smyth is leading with 51.33%, or 69,015 votes, against incumbent Democrat Jim Gaughran, who has 41%, or 55,132 votes. There are plenty of absentees to count, however, and they favor Democrats. Of the 36,048 absentee ballots returned, 18,445 were from Democratic voters, 7,366 from Republicans and 8,645 from independents. 

In District 6, incumbent Democratic State Senator Kevin Thomas is behind with 56,672 votes, or 43.03%, against Republican Dennis Dunne, who has 64,509 votes, about 48.99%. Voters returned 27,600 absentee ballots including 13,553 Democrats, 7,127 Republicans and 5,760 independents. 

In District 22, Republican challenger Vito Bruno is in the lead with 40,621 votes, about 51.37%, against incumbent Democratic State Senator Andrew Gounardes, who has received 34,586 votes, about 43.73%. According to the New York City Board of Elections, 39,294 voters requested absentee ballots in the district, including 24,689 Democrats and 5,587 Republicans. Of those, a total of 18,524 ballots were returned by 11,622 Democrats and 2,651 Republicans. Another 7,785 independent voters also requested absentees and 3,714 returned them to the BOE. 

In District 39, Democratic State Senator James Skoufis, a first-term incumbent, is currently ahead but with a margin that appears too early to call, though the senator did declare victory. He has received 50%, or 54,976 votes, so far, compared to Republican challenger Steve Brescia’s 44.23%, or 48,639 votes. There were 5,432 absentees returned – including 3,069 from Democrats, 927 from Republicans and 1,128 from independents.

In District 40, incumbent Democratic State Senator Pete Harckham, another first-term senator, is trailing with 45.48%, or 58,233 votes, against Republican challenger Rob Astorino, who has received 51.31%, or 65,686 votes, and was previously Westchester County Executive and the 2014 GOP nominee for governor. There were 31,622 absentee ballots returned in the district, including from 17,354 Democratic voters, 5,775 Republican voters and 7,000 independent voters. 

In District 42, Republican Mike Martucci is in the lead with 52.65%, or 58,685 votes, against Democratic incumbent Jen Metzger, who has received 43.11%, or 48,054 votes. There are 12,700 absentee ballots left to be counted including 6,526 from Democrats, 3,141 from Republicans and 2,363 from independents.  

Besides Stewart-Cousins and Gianaris, other incumbent Democrats who won reelection, many of them running uncontested, include John Brooks, James Sanders, John Liu, Jessica Ramos, Leroy Comrie, Toby Ann Stavisky, Simcha Felder, Julia Salazar, Roxanne Persaud, Zellnor Myrie, Kevin Parker, Diane Savino, Brian Kavanagh, Brad Hoylman, Liz Krueger, José Serrano, Brian Benjamin, Robert Jackson, Luis Sepúlveda, José Rivera, Alessandra Biaggi, Jamaal Bailey, Shelley Mayer, Neil Breslin, and Tim Kennedy.

The conference is set to have one newcomer in Jabari Brisport, an activist and teacher backed by the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, who ran uncontested in the general election for the 25th State Senate District in Brooklyn. Brisport pulled off an upset in the primary, defeating Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, who was supported by the previous officeholder, the retiring Velmanette Montgomery, and a third candidate, Jason Salmon.

The nine incumbent Republicans who won their races include Minority Leader Ortt, and Senators Andrew Lanza, Joseph Griffo, Patty Ritchie, James Tedisco, Fred Akshar, Pamela Helming, George Borrello, and Patrick Gallivan.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

Note- this article has been updated with a snapshot of absentee ballot totals as of November 6. It has also been corrected to reflect accurate absentee ballot totals from Senate District 22.  

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The State of Play in the State Senate as the 2020 Election Moves to Counting Absentee Ballots Wed, 04 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000