This year’s legislative session in Albany began with an unprecedented event, somewhat reminiscent of a civil union.
On January 9, Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein were sworn in as co-temporary presidents of the state Senate, thus codifying the historically unprecedented coalition between Skelos’ Republican caucus and Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference
At the ceremony, Skelos give Klein a gentle, approving nudge on his shoulder, as Klein’s brother administered the oath of office to him. Both men were beaming.
After the formalities were concluded, Skelos, who had held the title of majority leader and president pro tempore exclusively since 2011, thanked his colleagues in brief remarks.
As for Klein, he appeared to savor the moment in which he had finally attained the chamber’s top position after nine years in the Senate, delivering a resounding speech referencing his immigrant grandparents’ hopes and promising to help a new generation of young immigrants. In taking power, he vowed to work with his colleagues in both conferences and the governor’s office to pass bipartisan legislation.
“From this day forward it is no longer acceptable to dig in your heels in personal political combat at the expense of hardworking taxpayers of this state,” he said. “Coalition governing, by its very nature, is an inclusive endeavor, not an exclusive one. I have no doubt that our promise to create this historic bipartisan governing model will be the vehicle by which we can continue to build on the tremendous progress we have achieved in the past two years and the road that will lead us to even more results for all New Yorkers.”
Hours earlier, the two men released a statement explaining how they would run the Senate. They would take on the new title “temporary president” and serve as co-leaders, sitting in with the governor and the Assembly Speaker during budget negotiations. Both men would share power of the chamber on alternating days—a press release actually listed the days of the legislative session when each would preside over the Senate—though Skelos would have veto power over what bills could be introduced on the floor.
As the IDC and Republicans rejoiced at their new coalition, Senate Democrats quietly seethed. After last November’s election, Democrats thought they had finally achieved their long sought goal of winning enough seats to take control of the Legislature’s upper chamber. Upending Republican challenges in Westchester, Dutchess, Erie and Monroe counties and, eventually, in another district in the Capitol region that had been gerrymandered to favor a Republican legislator, the Democrats could now count 31 members of the 63-member Senate in their conference with one seat that remained contested (which the Democrats would win after a long recount).
However, before the session began Democrat Simcha Felder of Brooklyn announced that he would be caucusing with the Republicans instead of his party. Shortly thereafter Klein announced even worse news for the Democrats. His Independent Democratic Conference would join forces with the Republicans in exchange for IDC members landing influential committee chairmanships and Klein sharing leadership of the coalition. As a result, the regular Senate Democrats would be cast back into the minority, despite their numerical advantage on paper.
Klein justified his party-hopping move as the best way to advance a progressive agenda. He emphasized that his conference, empowered by the new power-sharing agreement, would advance progressive legislation including gun control, the decriminalization of marijuana, a minimum wage increase and education funds for immigrant college students.
“We can’t go back to the days of dysfunction,” Klein told The New York Times in November. “We can’t go back to the days of relying on every single Democrat to get things done, ignoring the other side completely, jamming through a legislative agenda which doesn’t have bipartisan support.”
Most importantly, Klein had the governor’s blessing.
Cuomo approved of the new Senate governing majority and set about to work with them. He outlined an exhaustive list of priorities for the year in his State of the State address, including women’s equality, campaign finance reform and an on-time budget in early January. Then he used a procedural measure, known as a message of necessity, to push the Legislature to pass a package of gun control bills in the first three days of its session.
Before the month was over, the governor got his gun bill, satisfying Democrats, and the Senate power-sharing agreement appeared to be working.
In March, Skelos and Klein’s coalition passed its next test, agreeing to a budget before the state’s April 1 deadline, which included a minimum wage increase to $9 an hour phased in over a three-year period, $1.1 billion in tax relief to families and businesses and an extension of a tax on the state’s top earners. Though Republicans grumbled over the tax extension and Democrats moaned that the minimum wage increase should go into effect immediately, the coalition partners declared victory. Cuomo said he was “hap-hap-happy” with the results.
“These three years in a row getting the budget passed on time and the integrity of the budget is better, I think it is irrefutable proof that government is working,” Cuomo said in a radio interview in late March.
It took less than three months for the mood in Albany to darken.
The first major issue to complicate Klein and Skelos’ marriage was campaign finance reform. Two weeks before the end of this year’s session, Cuomo introduced his package of ethics and election reform bills, surrounded by a cohort of district attorneys throughout the state. But legislative sources indicated in the waning days of the session that the Senate would not take up the governor’s anti-corruption bills because it included taxpayer-funded campaigns.
Though the IDC came out in favor of the public financing of elections, Skelos opposed it in any form. Cuomo refused to budge on his public integrity proposal and announced that he would impose campaign finance reform without the Legislature, if necessary, by convening a Moreland Commission.
Good government activists swarmed the fourth floor of the Capitol on June 18 and staged a sit-in at Klein’s fourth floor office. State Troopers arrested 21 demonstrators, who chanted, “IDC stands for I Don’t Care.”
Campaign finance reform drew its last breath of the year two days later when state Sen. Gustavo Rivera introduced a hostile amendment to an unrelated Republican elections bill. But Senate Democrats corralled only 30 “yes” votes for the measure. So down it went.
Democrats pointed fingers at each other for the bill’s failure.
Rivera said he was “deeply disappointed” with the Senate majority coalition for blocking the legislation. An Independent Democratic Conference spokesman retorted that Senate Democrats killed election reform because they were “either too disorganized or too fractured.”
Klein explained after the session that it was an issue that Senators “couldn’t come together and get done.”
“The Independent Democratic Conference supported a public financing system and we put out the most robust plan as far as anyone can say,” Klein told City & State. “You have to really question the motivation [of the activists]. A lot of special interests would like nothing more than to see coalition collapse. I think there are some in the Senate Democratic Conference who feel the same way.”
At least the proponents of campaign finance reform got a vote.
Last month, in the waning days of the session, rumors about the fate of hundreds of other bills oscillated like an electric fan as lobbyists, activists and legislative staffers rushed between chambers to get updates on their causes.
The legalization of casino gaming, restructuring the Long Island Power Authority and the governor’s plan for tax-free zones near state university campuses all appeared headed for passage before the end of session—and eventually they did.
But the DREAM Act, medical marijuana, marijuana decriminalization, speed cameras, early voter registration, transgender discrimination and a 10-point plan for women’s equality wavered between success and failure.
The Assembly worked 12-hour days to pass a flurry of bills in the waning days of the session—but the Senate was stuck in a logjam that held up debate.
Sources said that Skelos and Klein could not come to an agreement on which bills to bring to the floor of the Senate. Skelos nixed several proposals popular with Democrats and vowed not to introduce the tenth plank of the equality agenda that codified abortion rights.
So Klein introduced the abortion bill as a hostile amendment on the last day of the session. The surprise move failed by one vote—one Democrat joined the entire Republican conference to vote against it.
Klein directed his ire at Senate Democrats.
“I think it was clear that the other side of the aisle, my governing partners didn’t want to bring this amendment to the floor,” he said. “The Independent Democratic Conference is all pro-choice, the only conference in the Senate … and we thought the women of New York deserved a vote. And they got a vote today, not the right vote, but they got a vote.”
The Senate proceeded to pass the other nine women’s equality bills. But the Assembly, which grouped the equality bills into one package and passed it, adjourned for the summer at 9 p.m. on June 21 without picking up the Senate’s individual pieces. Neither bill could become law, making the Women’s Equality Act the most high profile victim of Albany’s gridlock.
The women’s coalition’s deflated activists did not know who to blame first.
NOW-New York leaders chastised Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assembly members for leaving without at least passing the nine less controversial bills. Others blamed Senate Republicans for quashing the abortion component and suggested that Klein’s amendment was a cynical ploy to score political points.
“You begin to wonder if this was all orchestrated,” League of Women Voters of New York State director Barbara Bartoletti said. “There were so many other ways to do this but it wasn’t done. It is what it is, and the groups that do electoral work will take what happened in the Senate as a negative vote and go after the senators who voted against the bill.”
NARAL director Andrea Miller put the failure of the legislation at the feet of Klein and Skelos. She said the session proved that the Senate coalition government is “unworkable” since it did not allow a floor vote on upholding federal abortion rights, an issue that a significant majority of New Yorkers favor.
“I consider that the IDC failed to demonstrate that they are truly pro-choice. … They failed to bring this forward in a real way,” she said. “They operated as if the IDC were a cluster of four votes and not part of a leadership coalition government. So I hold them as accountable if not more accountable for a woman’s right to choose.”
Success in Albany is in the eye of the beholder.
Both Skelos and Klein believe their coalition government is working. While Skelos declined to comment, his spokesman cited the passage of an early budget that curbed government spending, tax incentives for businesses and a relief package for Superstorm Sandy victims.
“Coalition government does not mean we will agree on every issue, nor should it,” Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif said. “New Yorkers, however, are better off thanks to the bipartisan results we delivered.” Klein said that the majority coalition would “put forth issues that are right for New Yorkers” over partisan bickering, and cited the minimum wage passage, an early budget, speed cameras and tax credits for middle class families as examples of its accomplishments.
“We have another year to go,” he said. “I’m very optimistic. The purpose of the coalition was never to turn Republicans into Democrats or Democrats into Republicans. It was to find common ground. We were very successful, and we want to be judged on the merits and judged on the results and we accomplished a lot.”
Klein noted that the failure of the abortion component and campaign finance reform did not signify that the coalition itself was a failure.
“When we started the coalition I never said that the only way to get a progressive agenda is to get a coalition, but on many issues when it is clear you do not have 32 Democrats, it cries out for bipartisanship,” he said. “You saw that on campaign finance reform, the choice issue— you need to get bipartisan support.”
Klein’s Democratic colleagues outside of the IDC disagree. They believe the best solution to passing progressive legislation is for Klein and the other members of the IDC to re-join their conference.
“I think they should be in a coalition with the Democrats, not the Republicans. I don’t care what they call themselves,” state Sen. Liz Krueger said. “They didn’t seem to get stuff they claimed they wanted when they left. They said they stood a better chance getting them if they broke off and made a deal with Republicans. I don’t believe they got what they wanted.”
Regardless of one’s opinion as to how the coalition has fared so far, few insiders believe it will break apart anytime soon—as long as Cuomo gets his way next year.
The governor may not have as notched as many legislative victories as he would have liked, but the real battle will be passing a tough budget next spring when Sandy money runs out, healthcare and education costs rise, the state’s municipalities face growing financial crises, and the effects of the cuts from federal sequestration become clearer.
“The governor’s interest in the coalition doesn’t end at the earliest until next year’s budget,” former assemblyman Richard Brodsky said. “The last thing Cuomo needs is an election year donnybrook. He’s got to clear the deck by April 1. And the easiest thing for the Senate coalition has been the budget. The friction has occurred on social issues.”
Nonetheless, there could be consequences at the polls next fall if budget deals fall apart and the Senate fails to advance a myriad of progressive items in an election year.
For their part, Senate Republicans have said they will defend the Independent Democrats if they face challenges at the polls next year. As for the governor, it remains unclear who he will back, and how vigorously, when he is touring the state next summer in his re-election bid.
Political observers believe Cuomo can change the balance of power in the Senate if he desires to do so.
“It will be interesting to see what Cuomo does to help a Democratic Senate in the 2014 election,” Brodsky said. “He supported Republicans and did not suffer political criticism for it. And when the mainstream Democratic conference had a chance to govern the state, they couldn’t function, much less deal with significant ethical shortcomings. There is an argument that you can’t let those guys back into power.”
Many progressive advocates bristle at the prospect of the coalition continuing, arguing that the results of the session prove that the Klein and the IDC placed their ability to control the Senate above their legislative agenda.
“If all you care about is the patina of power and creating circumstances that allow members of the Senate to not have to vote for what their constituents expected, then perhaps you would consider that successful,” Miller said. “I don’t ascribe to that school. The vast majority of New Yorkers believe we send members to the Senate to do good things for the state and create progress for us, not to do procedural measures that hinder progress and attempt to create political cover.”
Bartoletti agreed that the Senate was successful for those who ran it.
“The Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference won, and yes they did win,” she said. “In the end, staying in power wins out.”
Tags: Andrea Miller, Barbara Bartoletti, Dean Skelos, Democrat, Gustavo Rivera, Independent Democratic Conference, Jeff Klein, Liz Krueger, New York, New York Times, Republican, Richard Brodsky, Scott Reif, Sheldon Silver, simcha felder, state senate, Women’s Equality Act