New York’s state government is considered one of the most dysfunctional in the country, better known for gridlock and squabbling than passing policy and bipartisan deal making.
But now that Democrats control the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, will that change?
“Just because the Democrats have a majority doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to have a natural governing majority on most pieces of legislation,” said Bob Turner, an assistant professor of government at Skidmore College. “Much of the gridlock in Albany has been falsely attributed to partisan differences. But these are complicated issues that don’t simply break along party lines, and those lines will continue to exist.”
The Democrats captured the majority in the state Senate in Tuesday’s election, winning three seats and ending more than 40 years of Republican control of the Senate.
Joseph Zimmerman, a professor of political science at the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, agreed. “This doesn’t mean the governor is going to have a free ride,” he said. He said it’s still unclear whether all of the key players in state government will get along — whether Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver and Malcolm Smith, the Senate minority leader who is likely to become majority leader, will be able to work together, for instance. “What we don’t know is how things will work,” he said.
Democrats haven’t controlled both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion since 1935, but their edge in the Senate— a 32-30 majority — is slim. This means that in order to pass legislation the Democrats will need every member of their party to vote for it. Political observers say the shift in power will change things, but that it won’t necessarily make things easier. Ideological and regional differences will emerge, with old tensions between legislators from upstate and downstate driving many discussions.
“In the short term, there won’t be as big an impact as people think, given that the Democrats have a razor-thin majority and haven’t coalesced around a leader,” said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Consensus-driven policy making is the hardest thing there is.”
Whether Senate Democrats will deliver on their long-standing promise of bringing reform to state government remains to be seen. Many political observers are skeptical.
“New York has never been a model of openness and reform in how it does government,” Turner said.
Zimmerman agreed. He suggested that state government would become even less transparent, as leaders grapple with the worst fiscal crisis in years. The three-men-in-a-room style of governance will continue, he predicted, with Silver, Smith and Paterson meeting in secret to figure out what to cut and what to fund.
But others predicted movement on legislation that has long stalled in the Senate, and possibly even a push toward reform.
“You’ll get a bottle bill passed,” said Alan Chartock, political commentator and professor emeritus at the University at Albany. “You’ll get a more ambitious health plan. You’ll probably get gay rights. I don’t see how they can avoid it.” He also predicted that some reform measures would pass. “Whether the Democrats want to do that or not, they’ve been promising it all along when they’ve been in the minority,” he said.
Horner said he didn’t think “big ticket items,” such as gay marriage, would pass before the 2010 election. “On controversial issues, it will be harder for them to get things done, and they’ll be reacting more to what the governor wants.” But he predicted movement on smaller items, such as the bottle bill, and some reform. “The Senate Democrats have a long history of reform talk, and they can’t run away from that,” he said. “All of the Democrats have said they support campaign finance reform. They’re more likely to come up with a bill they can live with now than they were with the Republicans in there.” He said evidence of how serious the Democrats are would come early next year, when the Senate determines its legislative rules.
gridlock: a good thing?
Of course, not everyone thinks gridlock is bad, and some people worry about what will happen if there’s less of it.
“You’re presupposing that gridlock is bad,” said E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy. “Gridlock is an underrated force for good on occasion. A lack of transparency and accountability — that is much more important.” He said gridlock can be beneficial, because it prevents legislation with negative ramifications for taxpayers from being signed into law.
In the short term, some of that gridlock is likely to continue.
“In the Senate, you’ll have to have every Democratic member voting for everything,” McMahon continued. “The Democrats are not used to being in the majority. They’ll have to keep all their members in line on everything they want passed, and that’s a very difficult thing to do.” Even so, “A divided government is probably better than a politically unified government,” he said. “The goal of parties is to control everything, but when they do they fall on their face.”
Four downstate Democrats — the so-called “Gang of Four — had threatened to align themselves with the Republicans, but later last week two of those Democrats, Pedro Espada Jr. and Ruben Diaz Sr., of the Bronx, said that the Democrats would likely have a majority come January. The Gang of Four has said they want to see more Latino senators in majority roles.
Observers suggested that it would probably be a good idea for Smith to follow the precedent set by Silver, and pick someone from upstate to serve as his No. 2, the majority whip. One obvious candidate would be Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Albany. In New York, “the majority of checks and balances are not Republicans versus Democrats,” Chartock said. “It’s upstate versus downstate.” He said Smith may be forced to appoint someone from the Gang of Four to serve as his No. 2, but at the very least the Gang of Four would be heavily involved in selecting the number.
McMahon noted that Paterson, Silver and Smith are all from New York City, meaning that it’s the first time in a long time all three of the state’s most important leaders have been downstate residents. “That’s very different,” he said. “This is a very unique time.”
Horner said that if the Democrats want to strengthen their control of the Senate, they will figure out how to protect their upstate and suburban members. “This will have a moderating impact on city members,” he said. “If they want to expand their appeal, they need to reach out to rural and suburban voters.”
Chartock and McMahon noted that there has been one-party control of state government for years in Massachusetts, and that disputes and delays remain common.
“I live in Massachusetts, where we do have that,” Chartock said. “If anyone thinks the Senate and the House get along together, they can think again.”
Now the burden of addressing the state’s problems — including the worst financial crisis in years — will largely fall on the shoulders of the Democrats. They will be in charge of cutting the budget and raising the taxes, and following through on the promises they’ve made to voters.
“Republicans will be glad the Democrats have to make those decisions,” Turner said. “Democrats, by controlling everything, are going to be held accountable for everything that happens in New York.” He said Republicans will have a choice: They can stand on the sidelines and criticize everything the Democrats do, while forfeiting their ability to have input into the process, or they can help develop solutions but be tied to the outcomes. “The other thing they’re going to have to do is rebuild their party,” Turner said.
If the Democrats manage to hold onto the Senate majority through 2010, they will be able to control the redistricting process scheduled to take place next decade, observers said. That will allow them to redraw districts in a way that benefits Democratic incumbents, which could help them retain control of the Senate for years to come.
“From a Senate Democrat perspective, it’s all about holding onto power in 2010,” Turner said. “Then they get to redraw the lines.”