The bipartisan coalition governing the Senate has held together. This coalition faces a major test as we head toward the close of the Legislature’s session in June; therefore, now is a good time to assess how it has worked so far.
Back in January, I wrote that a coalition government is easier to form than it is to maintain, and that the key to the success of this one would be legislative productivity.
The gun control debate was divisive in the Republican Conference, but the coalition worked well under Klein and Skelos to pass the SAFE Act. Despite the controversy surrounding it, the act enjoys 2-to-1 support statewide, according to April’s Quinnipiac poll.
However, the pressure from the right ideologically and upstate regionally coming out of the gun control debate put great pressure on Skelos to deliver for his conference in the budget. Skelos passed the test, holding the line to secure Long Island’s “share” of school aid.
Skelos’ enacting of the property tax rebate in return for passing minimum wage was another victory. Despite conventional wisdom, both ends of that trade were quite popular with the GOP’s blue-collar electoral base upstate. The net effect was that Skelos delivered big-time for his Republican Conference on the state budget.
The budget—and the fallout from the Malcolm Smith scandal—was less kind to the Independent Democratic Conference. Not only did the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, under Chairman Karim Camara, and the New York Assembly/Senate Puerto Rican and Hispanic Task Force, led by Felix Ortiz, bristle at the lack of “foundation aid” formula funding under the CFE settlement in the budget, but they were seething when the Dream Act did not seem to get serious consideration. Those criticisms were compounded when the IDC had to boot its only member of color, Smith, amid scandal.
The pressure has therefore shifted to Jeff Klein and the IDC to deliver at the end of session. The IDC will have to prove that it can make good on its promise that its involvement in the coalition would result in progressive legislation, first, coming to the floor and then, passing in the Senate. Just as Skelos needed to reestablish his conference’s bona fides with the Republican base in the budget, Klein and the IDC need to do the same with Democratic voters, with time running down quickly to the close of session at the end of June.
When the coalition was formed, Klein justifiably received kudos for negotiating joint and equal authority over all Senate action between his IDC Conference and the larger Republican caucus. No one should count Sen. Klein out. He is a shrewd and supple political leader.
In addition, the governor is likely going to demand that Klein and the IDC stand and deliver on his priorities: campaign finance reform and a package of women’s rights measures. So far the IDC has appeared to be doing its part. State Sen. Diane Savino, an IDC member, has stepped out boldly as an advocate for the Reproductive Health Act, while Klein has been on point regarding campaign finance reform.
The nub of the question is this: Will Skelos and his conference block campaign finance reform and the Women’s Equality Act from coming to the floor for a vote? If the GOP blocks those votes, the joint and equal authority Klein negotiated will lie in tatters.
If the Senate GOP does not allow even for votes on the floor, that would pose a gut check for the IDC. The Senate’s GOP Conference needed political cover from the budget; now that need for political cover is on the IDC.
It is premature to predict how these issues will be resolved. But those who don’t realize how significant the political accounting will be for the IDC when the session’s ledgers are closed in June are being unrealistic.
In the parlance of what was dubbed the “Knesset on the Hudson” when this coalition first formed, Klein’s IDC faces a de facto vote of confidence by June.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.