While we were all glued to our television sets last week witnessing the potential demise of American democracy, the New York State Legislature quietly went to work on an ambitious agenda that could directly impact the lives of every one of us.
While it’s easy to get sucked into the conflagration going on in Washington, state residents need to make sure to direct some of their attention on Albany.
State lawmakers are fresh off an election that secured a Democratic supermajority in the Senate to go along with the existing supermajority in the Assembly, which means both houses have the votes to override any veto issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo has somewhat of a supermajority himself, having run the state for most of the past year with virtually unlimited authority, thanks to emergency powers bestowed on him by the Legislature to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
The political alignment of the two legislative chambers means items on the agenda are likely to fly off the shelf, reminiscent of when Democrats first took control of the upper house two years ago.
For issues on which they agree with the governor, it will be virtually impossible to stop them.
One-party rule doesn’t always work out for the best. Having checks and balances prevents one party from taking things too far.
That’s why citizens need to pay special attention to the Legislature this year, and why they need to listen to the voices of good-government groups, Republican and independent party leaders, and the media to ensure the Democrats don’t go too far.
The overriding issue this year will be how to close a gaping budget deficit exacerbated by a decline in tax revenue due to the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis.
Many businesses have cut back hours and staff or shut down completely. Many are out of work and struggling to get by. And even those workers who have kept their jobs have been hesitant or unable to spend their money as freely as they have in the past.
Less spending means less sales tax revenue for the state. More unemployed people means less income tax revenue. And greater need means more spending by the state to support its citizens.
Watch carefully what the state does to close the projected $60 billion budget gap expected over the next four years.
Essential programs that New Yorkers support may have to be cut. Public employees who perform essential services may lose their jobs, resulting in less work getting done for us. School districts and local governments may be forced to either cut back services or raise taxes to make up the difference in lost revenue and less state aid.
In desperation to close the budget gap, watch for state lawmakers to look for big revenue generators such as mobile sports betting and legalizing recreational marijuana to make up for the losses.
There are good reasons why these initiatives aren’t in place in New York now: Both can be detrimental to society if not regulated and managed correctly.
Citizens need to ensure the lawmakers’ quest for a quick buck doesn’t create more problems than they’re worth.
Also watch for overly optimistic revenue projections from these initiatives. State projections estimate mobile sports betting could generate $500 million a year for the state, while legalized recreational marijuana could bring in $300 million. But those projections are not likely to pan out as well as officials plan. (Think casinos.)
The state will need to do more to close the budget gap.
Lawmakers will also be tempted to raise taxes on the wealthy to bring in more revenue. That includes potentially raising taxes on large inheritances and stock transfers, and introducing new corporate taxes.
Raising taxes on the wealthy is a reasonable thought. After all, why should the poor and middle class shoulder all the burden? But an overly enthusiastic effort to tax the rich in the wrong way could backfire and result in driving them, and their tax dollars, out of the state.
Of course, lawmakers would rather raise money than make cuts to spending. But they won’t be able to close the budget gap without doing both.
There’s plenty of wasteful spending in the state budget, an issue that has gone unaddressed for years and was a problem even before the COVID crisis.
In the quest to bring in more money, lawmakers will need to be pushed to make well-considered spending cuts that don’t devastate education or people in need. Citizens need to stay connected to their Assembly and Senate representatives to ensure they’re cutting spending in the right way.
Also, look for lawmakers to push for more extensive reforms in the criminal justice system and the electoral system.
Hastily approved changes in the criminal justice system in the past two years, including bail reform, proved problematic and unpopular.
Watch closely to make sure lawmakers don’t once again rush through reforms without adequate public input and without getting input from a wide variety of stakeholders. In the case of criminal justice, that means hearing from prosecutors, police, the courts, defense attorneys and advocates for immigrants, criminal suspects, and indigents and minorities.
And keep in mind that the recreational marijuana will bring about its own set of criminal justice and workplace safety reforms. The state will be forced to grapple with issues such as decriminalizing certain possession; finding ways to address workplace drug testing; finding ways to manage driving under the influence of marijuana; and handing calls from criminal justice reform advocates to clear prisons of those convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes in the past.
With regard to election reforms, that’s an easier sell.
But given the seeds of doubt about the system planted during the presidential election, and with legitimate issues raised by a greater reliance on mail-in ballots, lawmakers need to be sure that the state, counties and local elections boards have the financial resources, staff and time to handle any changes made to voting and registration systems.
There no doubt will be many other issues that arise during the legislative session — many of which will affect our schools, our communities, our economic fortunes and our taxes.
While you’re paying attention to other matters, make sure to keep one eye on what’s going on in state government as well.