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Harmony is far from assured as Democrats take charge in Albany

ALBANY – Lots of major fiscal and policy items will get approved at the state Capitol over the next six months now that Democrats control both the legislative and executive branches in New York.

That’s a given.

The Democrats, from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on down, are going to get their work done efficiently against a backdrop of a new harmony in Albany to create this kumbaya period.

That would be silly talk.

If there is something unavoidable when Democrats control the government, as any Democratic official will say, it is the prospect for some political wildfire, some internecine warfare, to erupt at a moment’s notice that could lead to setbacks during what Cuomo has already predicted will be a “historic” 2019 session.

“Like any new relationship, any marriage, whatever, it requires work, and we’re ready to do the work with our partners in government to make sure the ship sails smoothly," said state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "I anticipate it will be a good relationship, but I also know that for the Senate Democrats we will be staying focused on who sent us here and why we are here.’’

Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Yonkers, will be formally selected as the new Senate majority leader on Wednesday, when the new session starts.

After cozying up with Senate Republicans for eight years, Cuomo last year re-set the narrative to say that the GOP was blocking major initiatives that had to get approved. By mid-year, he was done with them, and several months later Democrats won a string of elections to take control of the Senate in 2019.

In recent days, Cuomo has turned to radio interviews to profess his optimism for getting what he calls his priorities through the Democratic-run Legislature.

“I feel liberated,’’ Cuomo said of a Senate no longer controlled by the GOP.

He talked of having to settle for half-a-loaf on many initiatives with the GOP in charge.

Looking ahead to Democrats taking charge, he said, "This is simple."

'Separate and equal'

Nothing in Albany is simple, of course.

“We are absolutely clear that we are a separate and equal branch of government, and we will absolutely do the things we should be doing as a separate and equal branch of government,’’ Stewart-Cousins said in an interview.

One of those “separate and equal” functions can be – if lawmakers choose – oversight of the executive branch. Over time, yet rarely in recent years, lawmakers took more seriously the role of oversight committees to investigate problems in state government. Come next week, the two new Democratic chairs of the Senate and Assembly investigations committees say the public will start to see more rigorous and basic oversight of state government.

That rhetoric set off Cuomo, who told a public radio interviewer that two can play at that game. He noted how his administration can investigate millions of dollars in pork barrel spending doled out each year by lawmakers for any number of projects back home.

“I could investigate every one of those,’’ Cuomo said.

Pushing their agenda

The governor and lawmakers have promised swift action on a number of left-leaning items.

Stewart-Cousins would only say that on Jan. 14 the Senate will start taking up “some of the easier things,’’ with the first item being “something around elections.’’ That would likely be long-sought efforts by Democrats to make voting easier by permitting voters to register on Election Day and to drop restrictions on voter registration. Democrats also say they want to close loopholes in campaign finance laws that allow companies to skirt donation limits and to expand, in some fashion, public financing of campaigns.

In addition, all sides have agreed for years on other issues: expanding and protecting access to abortion, making contraceptive services more available, enacting new gun control laws, ending cash bail, ensuring more speedy trials, giving children of undocumented immigrants access to state college aid financing and fixing ethics laws.

Many of those items – details are pending – will pass before the budget is supposed to be done in late March.

Beyond the marquee items, rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers look to move hundreds of bills that died in the Senate over the years. Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, said he looks forward to getting movement on such stalled bills as one to reduce lead paint problems in housing and another to bring new transparency and accountability measures to local industrial development agencies.

“The opportunities are numerous," Ryan said. "There will be conflicts … but we are going to move an agenda forward.’’

The bumps

Institutional pressures are common among executive and legislative branches, but there are some unique to Albany in 2019.

In the Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie still fumes over how a December state pay panel did its work. Democrats believe Cuomo played a role – Cuomo denies it – in the panel’s move to link a pay hike for lawmakers with new restrictions on outside employment, the end of certain committee and leadership stipends and linkage between passage of an on-time budget with future legislative pay hikes.

Heastie believes Cuomo burned him on the issue in 2016 and again last month. It goes beyond the pay hike issue, Democrats in the Assembly say. “It’s about trust,’’ said one Democrat.

Albany took note when both Heastie and Stewart-Cousins declined to appear for Cuomo’s New Year’s Day inauguration speech. The two legislative leaders have been holding more one-on-one talks with each other in recent weeks as opposed to three-way talks with the governor in the room. Heastie declined to be interviewed for this article.

On the Senate side, many Democrats believe Cuomo helped keep the Republicans in power there for as long as it suited his political needs. Now, with Cuomo pursuing what he calls the most progressive agenda in America, he got himself a left-leaning Senate. On many issues, he has embraced items previously promoted by Democratic lawmakers, such as legalizing recreational marijuana use.

Also, Cuomo was a solid backer, until last year, of a breakaway group of Senate Democrats who aligned with Republicans. All but two of those renegade Democrats were defeated last fall by people who say they are fiercely independent and far to the left on many issues.

One of those new members is Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat. What are her expectations of relations between the Legislature and Cuomo?

“I didn’t expect it to be easy just because everyone is a Democrat. We are especially experiencing a political environment where there is deep soul-searching within the Democratic Party. It’s a good thing,’’ Ramos said.

If anything, she said, the session will show who the “real liberals” of the Democratic Party actually are.

Ramos said she sees three areas poised for “robust discussions” among Democrats in Albany. First is whether, or how, the state might someday move to a single payer health care system. Second, she and some other Democrats want to see a real “congestion pricing” system for rides to and from Manhattan, the proceeds of which they want dedicated to subway improvements. Third, the details of marijuana legalization – like how many pot retailers should be licensed and where – present challenges, she said.

And then there is education funding. Cuomo recently dismissed concerns from public school advocates who say the state remains in arrears on $4 billion in school funding to make up for a long-ago court case – called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, or CFE case – the state lost.

"I think Democrats in the Assembly and Senate have a different reading of the history about education funding than the governor," said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat. "Yes, I guess that is a bumpy road.’’

More obstacles ahead

Lawmakers have vowed to take a closer look at Cuomo’s economic development programs. They say this is the year to create a public database that includes every company getting state money and what they are doing with that money. They want to restore state comptroller oversight of the programs.

The state’s five-year capital plan expires this year, setting the stage for serious blow-ups over funding for New York City subway improvements and upstate road and bridge rehabilitation. Rent control laws also expire in New York City, and how far Democrats go in driving tenant protections will be a test of their power. Also, will Democrats go for efforts by Cuomo to make the state’s property tax cap permanent in its current form?

Krueger said economic development and ethics measures could be areas of disagreement between lawmakers and Cuomo. She said Cuomo faces his own internal change now that he won’t have Republicans to “play off Democrats” in private talks as he had during his first two terms.

“None of it’s going to be so easy and there are human beings in the mix who may have very strong personalities,’’ Krueger said.

To predict how the 2019 session will go before it even begins is hazardous.

“I think the whole storyline needs to play out to see how the two houses function with the governor," Krueger said. "And I assume there will be some real struggles on certain issues.’’

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