As state legislative leaders convene to finalize the budget, several progressive agenda items that Gov. Andrew Cuomo listed as priorities in his January State of the State address have dropped off the negotiating table.
The so-called four men in a room – Cuomo, state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, state Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – are hashing out the details of the $168 billion budget with little outside input. Reforming the state’s bail system, which Cuomo said in his State of the State was “biased against the poor,” has fallen by the wayside. Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society, wrote in a statement that “by kicking bail reform out of the budget negotiations Albany is ignoring the voices of people of color, people experiencing poverty and its larger constituency.”
The Child Victims Act, which would extend the statute of limitations to bring charges of child sex abuse to court, has also dropped out of the budget. Last week, Cuomo said that “these victims have been denied their day in court for far too long and we stand with them.”
Voting reforms such as early voting seem to be out as well, although online voter registration appears to still be in the budget. The Cuomo administration had been strongly pushing early voting, with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul telling City & State in an interview earlier this month that it was a priority, and an important issue of gender equality.
Proponents of voting reform quickly expressed their anger after it was reported that it was no longer being considered in budget negotiations.
I am genuinely gut-punched that Early Voting is not in the budget.— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) March 27, 2018
Cuomo, Governor for 8 years, doesn't care that we have the one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country.
Ricky Silver, a lead organizer for progressive grass-roots group Empire State Indivisible, said that he was disappointed by the governor’s lack of commitment to early voting.
“There was a lot of prioritization of real progressive policies in Gov. Cuomo’s 2018 democracy agenda, we were just hoping the governor would actually step up and back up that rhetoric, and it’s not looking like that’s going to happen,” Silver said.
However, in an indication of the lightning-quick pace of change in Albany – and of the secretive nature of budget negotiations – NY1’s Zack Fink reported that Republicans may endorse “some” voting reforms in exchange for firing Risa Sugarman, chief enforcement counsel at the state Board of Elections.
Sources say Senate Republicans are willing to do modest voting reforms in exchange for sacking Risa Sugarman at Board of Elections.— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) March 27, 2018
Bail reform, voting reform and the Child Victims Act all face significant opposition in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a good government group that is advocating for early voting, said that every man in the negotiations has veto power over items unpalatable to their constituency – including Flanagan.
“In this particular case, it takes four to tango,” Horner said. “It's not only about leverage, but it’s also about legitimate, philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans.”
Horner said that some of the more progressive items were dropped for practical reasons. The budget is fundamentally a fiscal document, even though the governor likes to introduce policy issues in his budgets to highlight his legislative priorities.
“That creates this dynamic where issues you wouldn’t normally think of as part of the budget are, but if you’re trying to get a budget done on time, and there’s not a consensus built on an issue, they can more easily fall off the table,” Horner said. As Cuomo has “used on-time budgets as a metric of how he’s brought order to chaos,” that also creates an incentive for flexibility in the budget negotiations, Horner added.
If Cuomo acquiesces to some Republican demands in the budget negotiations, it could intensify the backlash the governor faces from some progressives who perceive him as condoning the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats that helps the Republicans hold a slim majority in the state Senate.
“As long as the IDC exists, as long as the GOP is enabled to be in power in the state Senate, it feels like there isn’t the political will to overcome these issues and pass these types of policies,” Silver said. “If we can’t pass what feels like low-hanging fruit, basic progressive policy, then absolutely it should be discussed during the primary season.”
Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary, has used education funding and the IDC as political cudgel to hit the governor in her nascent campaign. In a speech in Albany on Monday, Nixon described the four men in a room paradigm as “an old boys’ club of one actual Republican and two wannabe Republicans” – alluding to Cuomo and Klein.
Nixon’s criticism also highlights another political challenge for Cuomo: the secretive and overwhelmingly masculine nature of the budget talks. Sexual harassment legislation is still included in the budget as of now, but its form is still unknown and being negotiated by four men. Plus, Klein has been accused of sexual misconduct, although he denies the allegation.
State Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who has not been included in discussions over sexual harassment measures in the budget, said on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on Tuesday that “old habits die hard.”
“There has never been a woman in the room,” Stewart-Cousins said.
The lack of gender representation in these discussions fueled Nixon’s criticism of Cuomo on Monday, as she accused him of “mansplaining and lecturing women on sexual harassment.”
Horner said that the biggest issue with budget negotiations was that no one could be sure of the final product until after it is approved, due to the secretive nature of the talks.
“They just slap it together in the middle of the night when people are sleeping, and they make mistakes,” Horner said. However, he added that this slapdash process could mean that items that were dropped out of the budget could be put back in the mix.
“It is not unheard of that some proposals that seem dead the Tuesday morning of the last week of session miraculously come back to life by the end of the week,” he said. Progressives, and Nixon, will be watching whether agenda items such as bail reform and voting reform come back to life by Thursday.
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