Western New Yorkers will have plenty to worry about if Democrats take over the state Senate this year, even if the prospect also offers a mixed bag of benefits and threats to the state, as a whole.
The prospects that Democrats will soon lay their hands on the chamber seem increasingly likely, given the drift of state politics and, significantly, the end of the feud between the party and the Independent Democratic Conference. Those breakaway Democrats have helped Republicans keep control of the Senate since Andrew M. Cuomo was sworn in as governor seven years ago.
Given what happened during the brief period that Democrats did wrest control away, Western New Yorkers have good reason for concern. Rivers of money flowed downstate in 2009 as New York City became the center of gravity for both chambers of the State Legislature.
With $85 million in “member items” to distribute that year, the Senate handed 90 percent of it – $77 million – to Democrats. And of that, a mere $13.7 million benefited upstate programs. Maybe that won’t happen again, but no one should feel comfortable about the possibility.
Nor should Western New Yorkers be sanguine about the interests of a Democratic Legislature in controlling spending, taxes and regulations in a state that already has too much of all three. It’s not that Republicans have done a great job restraining those influences; we got to this point with the party controlling the Senate.
The problem, given the long example of the Democratic-controlled Assembly, is that matters will go from bad to worse, and quickly. Across the country, the party is moving to the left, under the influence of such leaders as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. In New York, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon is seeking to do the same.
Inevitably, that will mean more spending. That might be sensible in a state that had exerted a modicum of control over its appetites. But that’s not New York.
Here, where the cumulative tax burden is already one of the nation’s highest, voters have reason to fear what more spending could mean. Among the likely consequences: higher costs shouldered by fewer residents as increasing numbers of New Yorkers decamp; and further loss of political clout as a shrinking population translates into fewer seats in Congress.
Where Democratic control might help – if party leaders are to be believed – is in tougher ethics standards in New York. Albany, as the head of New York Common Cause observed, is in denial. Every year seems to feature one or more high-profile prosecutions over criminality related to state government.
Already this year, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was convicted in a bribery scheme. Yet to come is a trial related to construction of Buffalo’s state-funded RiverBend project, as well as retrials of two former legislative leaders: former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
Against all of that, a normal Legislature would have been breaking down the doors to pass ethics and campaign finance reforms. This one didn’t. It simply ignored the whole issue, with each party blaming the other.
But if Democrats win control of the Senate, they will have no more excuses. Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, predicts that with a Democratic majority, Albany will move not just on ethics, but other important issues, including early voting, same day voter registration and campaign finance reform.
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, was equally certain of change. “It’s a good thing we’re on the verge of a Democratic Senate that has pledge to pass our ethics reforms,’’ he said last week.
Voters should consider that with these comments, Democrats have solemnly promised to pass serious, far-reaching ethics reform, should they take over the Senate. That could happen as soon as this month, with special elections on the calendar to fill 11 vacant seats in the Legislature, including two in the Senate.
Democratic control also would mean that Western New York – and all of upstate – would be at a political disadvantage unless more Democrats win Senate elections in the region. Kennedy is Western New York’s only Senate Democrat. That should be a concern to all voters.
Of course, Democratic control has been predicted many times in the past and it hasn’t happened. Maybe it won’t this year. But with the Independent Democratic Conference out of the picture, the likelihood has risen dramatically. If it happens, it will make a difference.