New York State

What to expect in the 2021 state legislative session

Will a Democratic supermajority and newly elected left-wing lawmakers shake up Albany?

What should you expect from Albany in 2021?

What should you expect from Albany in 2021? John Bilous/Shutterstock

New limits on solitary confinement. Higher taxes on the wealthy. The legalization of recreational marijuana. Democrats in the Legislature have big ambitions about what they can get done in the state legislative session that begins Jan. 6. This will be the third straight year of one-party rule in Albany, and state lawmakers appear more emboldened than ever, now that they control more than two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly and the state Senate. “We recognize the mandate we’ve been given by voters,” state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told reporters at the Capitol in late November. “We will assert ourselves accordingly, as we work with our colleagues in government.” That suggests an eventful year is coming up. 

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State lawmakers are aiming to push the political envelope on health care, criminal justice reforms and labor rights, but factors like an $8.7 billion state budget deficit, a centrist governor and outstanding differences within their own legislative ranks complicate the political equation.

The state budget is the biggest challenge. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers hope the federal government provides billions of dollars in new funding, but some combination of spending cuts and tax increases appears necessary to fully plug the budget gap. Limited resources also mean less money to spend on new social programs or longtime priorities like funding for local school districts. That is one reason why many state lawmakers are pairing policy proposals with potential revenue sources. New taxes on the wealthy could finance new services like an unemployment fund for undocumented people ineligible for other aid programs. Telecommunications companies might end up footing the bill for expanding broadband to every student, ages 5 to 21, across the state. 

“We recognize the mandate we’ve been given by voters. We will assert ourselves accordingly.” – state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins

New taxes could get approved even before 2021 gets started, if state lawmakers reconvene in the coming weeks. But there are no guarantees Cuomo will support higher taxes on the wealthy anytime soon, despite his recent comments about supporting tax increases in principle. He is still holding out for federal aid that would clarify just how much money the state needs to cover its deficit and he has previously warned that high earners would leave the state to avoid higher taxes. 

The governor has formidable emergency powers during the pandemic, and constitutional budgetary authority that keeps state lawmakers from adding things to the budget. While that makes him the most powerful of the “three people in the room” who ultimately make the big decisions in state politics, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Stewart-Cousins both have supermajorities, a first for Democrats in the state Senate. In theory, two-thirds of each chamber can override a gubernatorial veto. In practice, more moderate members of the state Senate who hail from swing districts would be unlikely to combat Cuomo from the left. The legalization of recreational marijuana, single-payer health care and criminal justice reforms could make moderate Democrats nervous in the coming months.

But on votes requiring just a simple majority, both leaders have plenty to spare. Back when Democrats had a 39-member majority (later 40 members) in the state Senate, they would need the votes of at least a few suburban moderates from the New York City suburbs in order to pass tenant-friendly rent reforms and a bill allowing undocumented people to get driver’s licenses. By flipping five state Senate districts historically held by Republicans in the 2020 elections, as many as 11 Democrats could vote against a bill and it could still get a majority in the 63-seat chamber. While the Assembly Democratic conference is the same size as before, it too has less reason to worry about the political needs of moderate lawmakers, now that a half-dozen establishment liberals from the outer boroughs will be replaced by an incoming class of leftist freshman members. 

This all suggests big things could be coming for ongoing efforts to limit solitary confinement, cancel rent, pass tax increases and legalize recreational marijuana once and for all. 

Stewart-Cousins and Heastie have led their respective conferences by emphasizing consensus among their members instead of leaning on the strong-arm tactics of past legislative leaders like former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. But that doesn’t mean that Democratic lawmakers will agree on everything. They come from upstate and downstate, New York City and its suburbs, blue and purple New York (if not red). Some are urban liberals while others represent suburban and rural areas. There are democratic socialists in both chambers and plenty of political centrists. 

Legislative leaders have not revealed what bills they want to tackle in the coming weeks, and the governor has not yet announced his policy priorities for budget season. Republicans, who controlled the state Senate as recently as two years ago, have said they intend to thwart the Democrats when they can. Nonetheless, with the 2020 election results, Democrats are more powerful than ever at the state level and one of their own is entering the White House, so they have reason to be optimistic about what the next legislative session will bring.