If all goes well for New York Democrats on Nov. 6, they will gain control of the state Senate for the first time since their brief control of the chamber in 2009-2010.
Such a victory would unify state government under one party for the first time since the Republicans held both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion during the early 1970s. Democrats would then be poised to take advantage of their power to pass legislation that has long been held at bay by the GOP’s state Senate majority.
This is especially so since the Independent Democratic Conference disbanded and most of its former members lost in the primaries. That would also leave the importance of Sen. Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, greatly diminished.
Of course, not all progressive priorities are equally easy to get through a state Senate that might hold only a narrow Democratic advantage – and one dependent on newcomers from moderate suburban and upstate districts. It’s easy to imagine Roe v. Wade being codified into state law through the Reproductive Health Care Act early next year, but legalizing marijuana, creating a single payer health care system, or passing a full congestion pricing plan for New York City are likely to be very contentious.
Here are the 10 most significant proposals that could become law if the Democrats control the Senate, Assembly and Governor’s Mansion in 2019.
The Reproductive Health Act
Whatever his faults, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is known for a relentless approach to governance and that means he will push hard for the Legislature to pass the Women’s Reproductive Health Act. The bill would update state law on abortion rights, which predates Roe v Wade, to bring them in line with current federal laws. With Brett Kavanaugh now on the Supreme Court, the Court might overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision in the near future. In that case, the state Legislature act in order to ensure that those abortion protections would still be covered by state law.
Cuomo has already made a promise on the campaign trail to get the bill passed within 30 days of the opening of the upcoming legislative session and the only barrier to accomplishing that goal appears to be Republican control of the state Senate. The Assembly passed the bill in March, but it never left committee in the Senate. State Sen. Michael Gianaris – a Queens Democrat who is expected to be the deputy majority leader if Democrats take the Senate – has said that “quick progress” can be expected on the issue in the upcoming legislative session.
The DREAM Act
The Democrat-controlled Assembly passed the DREAM Act in February and it could be among the party’s top legislative priorities if they take the Senate. The legislation – in contrast to a federal bill that provides a route to citizenship for “DREAMers” – would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at New York public universities, as well as make them eligible for state financial aid programs. (Citizenship and immigration law is under federal jurisdiction.) Republicans in the Senate however have long opposed the bill. Though it has passed the Assembly multiple times since it was first introduced in 2013, it has only came up for a vote once in the Senate – in 2014, when it came within two votes of passing. While the bill didn’t make it out of committee this past legislative session, it could move to the top of Democrats’ agenda if they, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, see it as a way to push back against President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies. However, it’s unclear whether Democrats will make it a high priority. “The DREAM Act is often perceived as being something that Democrats want to pass, but not something that Democrats want to spend a lot of political capital on,” Felipe De La Hoz, a reporter for the immigration news site Documented, said on The Brian Lehrer Show last month. “It could go to the end of the legislative line again.”
Speed camera expansion
Right now, the only thing keeping more than 100 speed cameras on outside of New York City schools is an emergency executive order signed by Cuomo in August. That move came after the state Senate adjourned without passing either a bill passed by the Assembly that would have increased the number of cameras, nor a Republican bill that would have extended the program. Democrats can cut Republicans out of the decision-making process if they control the Senate and perhaps expand the program, as the New York City Council would like . But, rather than expend political energy on the issue at the expense of other issues, they could theoretically just let the status quo continue with the state of emergency,.
More and more states have legalized recreational marijuana in recent years, increasing pressure on New York to follow suit. Several developments in the past year suggest that Democratic lawmakers and Cuomo are coming around to the idea in a manner faster than the 2014 process to legalize medicinal marijuana for patients suffering from serious illnesses. A series of 15 “listening sessions” concluded last month and there is already a working group tasked by the governor with drafting legalization for recreational marijuana.
If Democrats take control of the Senate, then there would likely be an opportunity to vote on whatever bill comes out of that effort. New York risks missing out on a growing industry if it fails to act as neighboring states have on the issue, according to legalization proponents. "You have it in Massachusetts. You'll probably have it in (New) Jersey. If you have it on both borders, I think the discussion starts to flip,'' Cuomo said this week in an interview with The Post-Standard in Syracuse. Otherwise, Cuomo noted, "people will be driving to Jersey and driving to Massachusetts,” to buy pot anyway.
One person effectively tanked a bill last year that would have decoupled student test scores from public school teacher evaluations – Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. The Republican leader had made an increase in the regional charter school cap, diminished oversight of yeshivas and more funding for charter schools a condition of passing legislation. While there had been bipartisan support for changing how teacher performance is judged, those conditionswere too much for Assembly Democrats who pronounced the Senate bill “dead on arrival.” A bill that lacked the controversial provisions passed the Assembly and had the support of Cuomo meanwhile did not come up for a vote.
The New York State United Teachers union pushed hard against legislators – Democrats and Republicans – who voted against the bipartisan bill, but there is no guarantee that the union would make changing teacher evaluations a top priority when the new legislative session begins. Union leader Andrew Pallotta has said that school funding will take precedence early next year and there is also a chance that the union would push for a new bill rather than the previous bipartisan one if the union feels it could get a better deal from a Democratic majority. Pallotta would not say in an interview with City & State in the late summer whether he would back the same bill again. But even if a Democratic legislature doesn’t address the issue right away, there is still a good chance that they will come back to the issue later in the year, especially since there seems to be a bipartisan consensus to get something done on the issue.
Read regulation could be a particularly divisive issue for Senate Democrats. The current rent laws, which cover about 1 million rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments in New York City, expire in mid-June. It’s very likely they will be extended even if Democrats don’t take the Senate because Republicans have passed extensions of their own before. What could make things different this year is how new faces will affect Senate Democrats’ approach to the issue. Incoming senators like Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar campaigned heavily on strengthening rent protections for tenants. Whether Democrats will push for something closer to “universal rent control,” simply pass an extension of the current laws, or enact more targeted pro-tenant reforms like ending vacancy decontrol, will show how much power the left wing of the party has in the new legislative session.
The real estate industry is worried that their worst nightmarecould come true, but if Democrats only win a slim majority in the chamber, then moderate Republicans might have leverage on the issue, especially if Salazar, Biaggi and others insist on dramatic changes to the current laws. All signs point to rent control being extended, but what form that effort takes depends on whether Democrats can come to an agreement among each other.
Criminal justice reform
A Democratic Senate majority would open the way to a litany of criminal justice reforms. State Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins outlined her party’s goals last year. She would presumably push for them in the upcoming session if she becomes Senate majority leader in January. The first part of the three-bill approach is to end cash bail, as has already happened in California. Then there is a bill that would speed up the timeframe for criminal cases to go to trial. A third piece of legislation would strengthen discovery laws to enable defendants to see all of the evidence against them before they make plea deals with prosecutors, who currently do not have to disclose trial witness names, statements, grady jury testimony and other evidence. Cuomo has already signalled in his last State of the State address that he would back such changes to state law.
Another front where a Democratic Legislature could keep Cuomo honest is reforming New York’s notoriously restrictive voting laws – an effort that Cuomo has at least played lip service to in recent years. Changes in the upcoming year that a Democratic Legislature might consider would include the creation of early voting, automatic voter registration and an expansion of absentee voting. With the demographics of the state at-large favoring Democrats, there is a strong incentive for the party to push for such changes – though easing voting restrictions might not boost support for Democrats as much as both parties assume.
Single-payer health care
The issue that would likely be the most divisive inside the Democratic conference would be whether or not to pass the New York Health Act, an effort to create a universal, single-payer healthcare system statewide. The Assembly passedthe bill over the summer, but it was a non-starter in the Senate. But that was before a long-awaited study from the RAND Corporation found that single-power health care could work in New York – assuming that the right conditions align. Support for such a plan appears to be increasing among Democrats, especially since former members of the IDC lost primaries to more liberal Democrats who have expressed support for single payer health care. However, Cuomo has yet to get behind the New York Health Act, even though he has signalled support for such a plan at the national level. Like with universal rent control, a slim Democratic majority in the state Senate might not be enough this year to pass “AlbanyCare ,” but that doesn’t mean progressives won’t try to win the rest of the party over to their side.
Cuomo has gradually come out for a fee on cars entering the heart of Manhattan during business hours to ease traffic and raise revenue for the subway system. Met with skepticism from suburban and some outer-borough legislators, it failed to pass this year, with the exception of a surcharge for taxi and for-hire vehicles . But the financial problems of the New York City subway system have only gotten more serious in the past year, and congestion pricing is a top way to pay for needed repairs, even if it would not bring in enough revenue by itself.
In contrast to other major progressive demands, party leaders appear to be somewhat evasive in whether they would push hard for congestion pricing, or even support it at all. “I can’t speak for others. We’re gonna have to have those conversations,” Gianaris told Gotham Gazette in October. Stewart-Cousins’ position on congestion pricing remains unclear, because she appears to have reservations on supporting legislation that would hurt commuters from her suburban district in Westchester County. In the end, the fate of congestion pricing could be a matter that reflects divisions between lawmakers who represent constituents who commute by car and those who don’t, whether they are Republicans or Democrats.
“There are a lot of proposals we should be considering before we consider charging middle-class people who drive into Manhattan,” Assemblyman David Weprin, a Queens Democrat, told The Wall Street Journal. But Cuomo has said that congestion pricing is the “only realistic option” to secure billions of dollars for the subway however and he could be the difference in driving the issue forward in upcoming budget negotiations – especially since keeping the subway system from getting worse might determine whether or not he succeeds in creating a legacy as one of the state’s great governors.
NEXT STORY: How far New York still has to go on MWBEs