ALBANY – In early January, as Democrats took control of the state Senate after decades of Republican domination, much debate ensued about just how far to the political left New York State would be taken in the 2019 legislative session.
The answer is in: to the far left in many instances.
“It’s absolutely true. I think, for once, legislators in both houses represent how most New York State residents feel,’’ said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat.
Albany has been rebalanced.
Gone is the comfort – whether by social conservatives, or church leaders, or insurance companies, or farmers, or landlords or banks or any array of upstate business interests – that one house, the Senate, would be there to protect them from left-leaning lawmakers in the Assembly.
“This is the beginning of a more representative government for all the people of New York State,’’ said Senator Brad Hoylman, another Manhattan Democrat, who like Rosenthal, got numerous bills passed that had been stalled in previous years.
“We are a true blue state and this session reflects that,’’ Hoylman added.
“The people were ready for change,’’ Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Friday, adding the session has made New York “the social progress capital of the United States of America.”
The Legislature is now dominated by Democrats from New York City. And Cuomo talked of the “conflicting political pressures” between more moderate upstate and suburban Democrats and New York City Democrats, who he said, are worrying about their 2020 elections.
“The New York City-based Democrats are only afraid of a challenge from the left so they’re moving as far left as possible,’’ said Cuomo.
Priorities change dramatically
Few of the sweeping, and in some cases historic, ideas that were passed this session were actually new. Assembly Democrats pushed most of them for years, even decades in some cases. With the GOP gone from any power base, it’s been a harried session that turned those ideas into reality.
The sheer volume surprised even lawmakers. In all, from the big geo-issues down to the nonpolitical local bills, 935 bills were given final approval this year. That’s a 45% increase over the average annual number of bills the Legislature OKed the previous five years, records show.
But it was the bills that dramatically reshaped state laws that left some Republicans worried. “I think to a lot of people across New York State, certainly in Western New York, this feels like it’s come out of nowhere because it’s been such a shift so quickly,’’ said Sen. Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican.
He worries that the list of left-leaning fiscal and social policies cannot be reversed even if the GOP wins back the Senate next year – which few are predicting anyway – because the Democratic-run Assembly would never undo the measures they fought so long to enact.
The list of measures long stalled in Albany that passed this year is remarkable. New gun controls. Movement to a taxpayer financed campaign system. Added abortion rights and expanded access, along with a ban on plastic bags and an end to religious exemptions for parents who don’t want their children vaccinated.
Lawmakers banned gay conversion therapy on children, along with adding a number of new rights and protections for the LGBGT community. They also enacted ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets hailed by environmentalists and condemned by many upstate business groups.
Lawmakers approved legislation to provide state financial aid to students in the country illegally. High-end real estate sales in New York City will get taxed more and a surcharge on income for millionaires was left intact. There will be more cameras permitted to catch drivers who break motor vehicle laws and the smoking age has been raised to 21. Cash bail laws for 90 percent of the people arrested in the state has been dropped in order to keep people who can’t afford bail out of jail while their cases proceed. Prosecutors will be required to share more information with defense lawyers.
Taxes were raised on certain internet sales and upstate car rentals, and a panel is working on a plan to impose tolls on vehicles entering most of Manhattan. Major new tenant protections were enacted over the opposition of real estate interests, which had blocked many of the ideas for decades through connections at the Capitol. New support for minority- and women-owned businesses was passed, as was a ban on off-shore drilling. Politically potent chemical companies lost a fight over material used in toys.
Democrats not hiding ideology
Among the most controversial items near session’s end: letting migrants who are in the country illegally obtain New York State driver’s licenses and enacting new employment rights for farmworkers.
Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat, told her colleagues on the Senate floor last week that the farm bill was about “centralizing wealth” in the farm industry by driving more money to workers through provisions like mandatory overtime.
“I give them credit. They’re very honest about it. Senator Ramos was very honest about what she’s trying to do,’’ Orrt said. But whether on the farm bill or others, Democrats proved in this session, he added, that they want to “redistribute money and power from what they view as the established order in New York State to those who don’t have it. But they’re doing it so quickly and it’s going to cause a lot of pain across this state.’’
Democrats readily acknowledge their intentions: to turn around the conditions of many New Yorkers who they say have been ignored or hurt by Albany, whether apartment renters or farmworkers or people who are gay.
Moreover, they say Albany, and GOP control in the Senate, in recent decades has been skewed, failing to represent the changing demographics in this state. They say Republicans managed to hold onto the Senate through the state’s flawed redistricting process, in which lawmakers in power were able to draw their own district lines – resulting in oddly shaped districts throughout the state devised in such a way to empower and protect incumbents.
Twice in recent decades, the Senate GOP simply grew the size of their chamber in order to draw lines to protect Republicans. Now, firmly in control of the Senate, Democrats are looking to further cement their power after the 2020 elections as the state heads to the next redistricting process in 2022 – an effort Democrats say will toss the GOP into a long-term structural power decline.
For the Senate Republicans, “it will only get worse,’’ said Sen. Neil Breslin, an Albany County Democrat.
A far different year in Albany
About the only major left-leaning issue to die: legalization of marijuana. Objections by some downstate senators, many of whom are newish to the Senate in marginal districts, killed the idea. But lawmakers Friday passed an alternative for the time being: marijuana decriminalization, which will end criminal penalties for about an ounce of marijuana possession and create a process that could expunge the marijuana arrest records of tens of thousands of people.
Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a Bronx Democrat, said the session has been especially successful for immigrant rights issues, whether with the bills for farmworkers, driver’s licenses, college aid or items in the April 1 budget. Nearly two-fifths of New York City’s population is foreign-born. He sponsored the driver’s license bill that recently passed.
“We’ve always felt we’ve been advocates and part of the growth and movement of our communities, but our priorities have always been at the end of the line,’’ said Crespo, who is also the Bronx Democratic Party chairman and ex-chair of the Assembly Task Force on New Americans.
Crespo stressed Democrats who control the two houses did take into account the needs in districts represented by upstate Democrats who might represent more conservative districts or even GOP districts. “I think this idea that every bill is just a representation of one sector of the far left of the party is not necessarily accurate. We take into account that we represent very diverse communities and everybody’s opinion should be respected, even if we disagree,’’ he said the other day as the 2019 session was coming to a close.
An example? Crespo cited the farmworkers bill. He said Democrats made major compromises on the bill, raising from 40 to 60 the number of hours farmworkers must work to get overtime. They also eliminated provisions letting farmworkers strike.
“We politically could have pushed for the original bill by advocates and pulled no punches. Yet we still negotiated and gave in on the provisions that the advocates were not happy about,’’ Crespo said.
Should upstate be worried?
Unlike Republicans in the past, Democrats say they were able to do things like drive major new funding upstate, including extracting a promise from Cuomo to spend $100 million over five years for light rail improvements in the Buffalo area, or making permanent the state’s property tax cap program.
“The New York State Senate majority demonstrated in a very short period of time that we listened to the needs of the people,’’ said Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.
Still, upstate business groups are concerned. “Rather than taking steps to bring upstate on a path to economic recovery, the Legislature advanced policies that put upstate in the fast lane to an economic disaster,” said Michael Kracker, executive director of Unshackle Upstate.
Breslin, the Albany County Democrat, talked of bills getting through the insurance committee he chairs and passed by the two houses that give new benefits to health care consumers. He is one of only three Democrats in the Senate between Albany and Buffalo.
What he said has happened the past six months is what he called “a rebalancing” in Albany that now, he added, better “reflects what the people of New York State want.’’
“It has been a recalibration, but it’s also a reflection of New York as a progressive state that respects the rights of minorities, workers, children and the environment,’’ added Hoylman, the Manhattan Democrat.