If Democrats win a supermajority in the state Senate this November, it could upend the current balance between suburban moderates and left-leaning lawmakers from New York City, which suggests some action is coming on a few top issues. And if Democrats don’t make big gains in November, these are a few major legislative debates to expect in 2021.
Single-payer health care
Neither the state Senate or the Assembly passed the New York Health Act this past year, which would set up a state single-payer health care system. That could change if President Donald Trump wins reelection and continues to try to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins and is able to work a Democratic controlled U.S. Senate to expand access to health care, on the other hand, there may be less of an impetus for further action at the state level. Biden has said he opposes single payer at the national level, but it’s inconceivable that he would try to stop New York from enacting its own system. If Trump wins though, he could withhold billions in federal subsidies for any states that try to set up their own single-payer systems.
Democrats got really close to legalizing recreational marijuana last year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was even going to tour cannabis-friendly states before the pandemic began. It all came down to some bad timing and a few uncertain votes in the state Senate. Some of the outstanding issues include how future tax revenues would be used, how legalization would compensate communities or individuals harmed by the war on drugs and whether enterprising New Yorkers would be able to grow their own green at home. With the state desperate for money, it only seems natural that the governor and state lawmakers would like to try this out again in the upcoming year.
Criminal justice reforms
No issue has demonstrated the political leverage of suburban moderates more than eliminating cash bail. The 40-seat Democratic majority in the state Senate hinges on controlling six swing districts on Long Island and a few more in the Hudson Valley. Any Republican victories in recapturing suburban seats they lost in 2018 would decrease the number of moderates in the Democratic conference, whereas new upstate Democrats might add numbers to either the progressive or moderate factions, depending on who gets elected in the Buffalo and Rochester areas. New limits on cash bail remain controversial, but they could be strengthened once more if the left does well enough in the November elections. A leftwards turn in the state Senate could also mean movement on outstanding proposals like raising the minimum wage for inmates or allowing more criminal defendants to get more lenient treatment as youthful offenders. If Republicans somehow win big upstate and in the downstate suburbs, then reform efforts might be stymied as Democrats look to shore up their chances in 2022.
The pandemic has ripped a $14 billion hole in the state budget approved in April. Cuomo and other Democrats are keeping their fingers crossed that Biden wins and billions in new federal funding will begin coming down the federal pipeline in early 2021. But even that will likely not solve all the state’s fiscal problems. Both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have said that they are OK with raising taxes on the wealthy to close the budget gap, but the governor is still holding out.
Activists were hopeful at the beginning of 2020 that state lawmakers would finally pass a bill that would place new limits on the number of days that incarcerated people can be held in isolation. There appeared to be plenty of support for the effort in both the state Senate and Assembly. Yet, legislative leaders have not moved the bill at all since they reportedly struck a deal with the governor to make administrative changes instead. One year later, nothing really has changed in terms of solitary confinement in correctional facilities across the state. A new wave of incoming progressive lawmakers are likely to make some noise again.