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Editorial: Applause and caution for state Legislature

Editorial: Applause and caution for state Legislature

Just take a second to savor having a productive state government
Editorial: Applause and caution for state Legislature
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the Reproductive Health Act into law during a ceremony Tuesday evening.
Photographer: Gov. Andrew Cuomo/Flickr

You have to admit it’s been pretty exciting.

Whether you agree with what they’ve been doing in Albany or not, just take a second to savor having a productive state government taking on important issues and passing important legislation with efficiency and flurry.

It’s something like we’ve never seen before.

This is the New York state government, the one for whom the word “dysfunctional” was redefined in the dictionary, working like a finely tuned sports car, voting on bills and getting them signed by the governor, sometimes on the same day.

Contrast New York’s buzz with the debacle in D.C. over the last few weeks. As our representatives in the federal government fumbled and bumbled through the month-long federal government shutdown, New York was showing America how to get things done.

You get the feeling that if Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and new Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins could have given each other high-fives and chest bumps without embarrassing themselves, they would have.

Credit the new Democratic majority in the Senate for breaking the logjams on important legislation, such as expanding access to the polls with new voter reform legislation, passing the Reproductive Health Act as insurance against a conservative U.S. Supreme Court revoking abortion rights, removing standardized testing as a mandated factor in teacher evaluations, passing new protections for immigrants and transgender individuals, and perhaps tomorrow, passing the Child Victims Act to give victims of child sex abuse more time to seek justice.

But while making quick progress is important, it’s vital that Democrats also make sure to take time to do things right.

That includes listening to the concerns raised by Republicans, who up until Dec. 31 had been the majority party in the Senate for the past couple of decades.
While being portrayed now as obstructionist, Republicans were in power for so long for a reason, and they served an important purpose.

The most important one, perhaps, was that they represented the interests of citizens in upstate districts against a full takeover of the state government by New York City and Long Island-based interests.

The election of 2018 took their power away. But Democrats shouldn’t ignore what they bring to the table, which in many cases are reasonable objections and caution shared by many people in the state, including their own downstate constituents.

For instance, the bill to expand voter access to the polls that allows New Yorkers to vote up to eight days before Election Day this year is important. But it will also come at a cost to local counties, which will have to figure out how to open and staff extra polling places. Passing this legislation was the first step in the process.

When they’re figuring out the state budget, Democrats need to heed Republican warnings about ensuring that the state compensates local counties for the extra costs.

Another area where Republicans expressed concern was on the Dream Act, in which the Legislature voted last week to set aside $29 million to support tuition grants for undocumented immigrants and holders of temporary visas. (We encouraged the governor in an editorial on Friday to veto it.)

The passage of the bill was as much a Democratic response to the anti-immigrant policies of the Republican Trump administration as it was to meeting an unmet need among the immigrant community for better access to college.

Many Republicans during the debate cautioned against the backlash from middle-class New York citizens about giving state aid to immigrants who are in the country illegally, while legal citizens struggle to put their kids through college without that extra money. Those concerns are real and affect all New Yorkers.

Republicans also cautioned against going too far with the Reproductive Health Act, which Democrats rushed to get passed on the anniversary of the groundbreaking Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in this country. Some Republicans complained about the bill, with some legitimacy, about provisions that expand late-term abortions, allow  non-medical doctors to perform abortions, and remove safeguards that might protect pregnant women from domestic attacks.

We understand the new majority’s enthusiasm to get things done and to take advantage of their newfound power to make the changes they feel are necessary for the state. 

But in their zeal to pass as much legislation as possible in the shortest period of time, Democrats would do well to take time, listen to the concerns raised by the minority party, and  perhaps modify their legislation to address those concerns.

Now that they’ve plucked some of the low-hanging fruit from past legislative sessions, they need to rein themselves in and move more deliberately to ensure that the legislation they pass actually addresses the legitimate concerns of the residents of the state.

Among the upcoming legislation in danger of being rushed through without a full examination of the effects and public response are the expansion of the state’s gun laws, passage of recreational marijuana and legalization of online gaming.

In addition, they’ll have to slow down when it comes to redistributing school aid in a manner that addresses the needs of poorer school districts. They’ll have to address the impact of the permanent tax cap and find ways to help counties, towns, villages and cities find savings — most importantly by identifying and eliminating some unfunded state mandates.

While it might not be a big deal up here, they’ll have to address the oversight and spending of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages New York City’s public transportation system. And they’ll have to figure out a new way to promote economic development upstate in a way that’s cost-effective and transparent.

When she took over as Senate majority leader, Stewart-Cousins vowed not to ignore the concerns of upstate residents, who have traditionally been represented in large measure by Republicans.

As the excitement of the first very productive weeks of the new legislative session winds down, she’s going to have to adhere to that pledge and not just focus on the needs and desires of the downstate population.

All of these issues and others will require the input, expertise and representation of both political parties.

We’re encouraged that the Legislature has found a way to be productive and ease some of the past concerns about political stagnation and incompetence.

But there’s a lot of important work that remains to be done that won’t benefit from a process that favors speed over reasoned deliberation.

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