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Politics Column

In Albany, the beat of January politics goes on

Robert J. McCarthy

ALBANY – There’s a certain rhythm pulsing each January through the grand edifice that dominates this town.

Legislators and staffers greet and hug each other after their more than six months’ separation. Old faces disappear, new ones take their place. And New York’s diversity manifests itself like in no other state capitol as rabbis from Brighton Beach mix with farmers from Chenango County.

But always, a sense of “newness” seems to permeate Capitol corridors that have witnessed lots over the decades.

It’s not that much different in 2020, even with all sorts of problems awaiting the return of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature this January.

Population continues to drain from upstate, though that was not addressed in Cuomo’s State of the State message on Wednesday.

Nobody knows what to do about the bail reform package passed last year by the new all-Democratic Legislature, even as law enforcement howls in anger at its implementation. Democrats seem to need fine tuning in their new ruling status.

And then there’s that pesky problem of a $6.1 billion deficit. That will make for some fun times ahead. Albany is not exactly known for its penny pinching.

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But those who govern from this building must face those facts in the coming months. Some legislators held back nothing after the governor laid out his 2020 game plan.

“There was no real explanation about how we got to this $6.1 billion deficit or no real plan to get out of it,” said Assemblyman Joe Giglio of Gowanda from the depths of the Assembly’s eternal Republican minority. “Aren’t you supposed to say where we are right now and how we are going to pay for it?”

The problem, of course, remains the state’s soaring Medicaid expenses. The program ranks among the most expensive in the nation, mainly because of the expanded costs stemming from the Affordable Care Act. And the minimum wage increase enacted by last year’s new all Democratic Legislature fuels some of those increases in the salaries of so many health care workers.

The governor touched on all of this in his Hollywood-worthy address (with all those accompanying optics designed to glorify nine years of Cuomoism). He knows Medicaid must be addressed, raising real fears among Democratic allies like County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who made no secret that he opposes even the hint of counties bearing the program’s new costs.

“It could have a huge impact on our county,” he said outside the speech chamber.

All of it must have made for interesting discussions among the Poloncarz team on the Thruway drive back home.

Apart from the Medicaid mess, the sense of “newness” includes an entire state government dominated by Democrats. In their first month after taking over last year, they rammed through all sorts of progressive measures, including limiting use of cash bail in most criminal cases.

Suddenly, real questions surface as law enforcement throughout the state howls about letting bad guys out of jail and on to the streets. Even Democrats who voted for the change last year are backing away.

Cuomo says the law’s goal – a bail system not driven by the ability to pay for release from jail – remains sound. But he also called it a “work in progress,” hinting at more to come.

Republicans, meanwhile, are having a field day over the prospect of actually exerting influence.

“I am deeply concerned with the recent bail reform for two reasons – it has created a public safety crisis and has taken away far too much discretion away from the judiciary,” said Assemblyman Angelo Morinello of Niagara Falls. “This, among other proposals, demands further analyzation and reform.”

Even with the advent of one-party rule – a situation unlikely to change for many years – a learning curve still awaits.

When Cuomo releases his budget proposals in the next few days, specifics will come to light. Then there will be real moaning and gnashing of teeth.

But it’s part of the time-honored process of this town. Somehow, it will all work.

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