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Democrats Hold Senate Majority, All of State Government; Here's What's on Their Agenda

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.

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.

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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