By Jessica Bakeman | Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY, N.Y. - When lawmakers return to the state Capitol in early January for a new legislative session, they'll face closing a roughly $2 billion budget deficit and debating a "progressive" social agenda demanded by the powerful Democratic governor.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he expects the Legislature to pass "the people's agenda," specifically a minimum-wage hike, decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and reform of the state's campaign-finance laws. Gun control will likely dominate during the session, as well, after a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school earlier this month thrust gun violence into the national spotlight.
Recovery from Superstorm Sandy will have a profound effect on the budget for fiscal year 2013-14 - although to what extent is unclear as the state waits for emergency funds from Congress. Local governments will pressure lawmakers for relief from the financial responsibilities of state mandates, and Cuomo has said there is no place in Albany for those who don't support the 2 percent property-tax cap, which was passed in 2011.
"As governor, I have specific programs and progressive initiatives that I believe must be continued or enacted," Cuomo wrote in an op-ed piece Dec. 6. "In general, I believe the state needs to continue the progress of the past two years to maintain the fiscal integrity we've established and further the social progress we've achieved."
Cuomo also urged the Legislature to allow "limited and highly regulated" casinos, support women's reproductive rights and pass environmental protection initiatives. He also expects continuing support for predetermined increases in education and Medicaid spending, tax cuts for the middle class and education reforms, such as a teacher evaluation system adopted in 2011.
Discussing his priorities on an Albany radio show Dec. 12, Cuomo said: "I will do everything in my power to get that agenda passed."
Cuomo noted he would announce other priorities during his 2013 State of the State speech, to be held Jan. 9 in Albany. The legislative session also starts Jan. 9 and runs through June.
Although a series of close state Senate races in the November elections resulted in more Democrats being elected to the chamber than Republicans, a breakaway faction of Democrats has decided to partner with the GOP. That, and the decision of Sen. Simcha Felder, D-Brooklyn, to sit with Republicans, has lead to uncertainty about how liberal social issues will fare.
The Independent Democratic Conference, led by Sen. Jeffrey Klein, D-Bronx, brokered a power-sharing deal with Republican Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, in which the two will alternate the Senate presidency every two weeks.
Though Republicans and the IDC have touted the agreement as an an unprecedented commitment to bipartisan cooperation in Albany, mainstream Senate Democrats have condemned the deal as an attempt to circumvent voters' will.
Democrats won at least 32 of 63 seats in the elections, which would have shifted to them control of the chamber, had the IDC and Felder not broken away.
Republicans currently hold a slight 33-29 majority.
"This is not a coalition but a coup against all New Yorkers who voted for Democratic control of the Senate and a progressive state government," Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy said in a statement Dec. 4.
Klein told Gannett's Albany Bureau earlier this month that the coalition is "committed to seeing major pieces of progressive legislation pass the Senate chamber." He said the chamber would approve increasing the minimum wage, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and reforming campaign finance laws.
But Republicans have not been so clear.
Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said he doesn't "like any of the bills that are out there right now" on the minimum wage or campaign-finance reform.
Democrats have pushed to raise the hourly wage from $7.25 to $8.50, arguing that low-income New Yorkers will put that money back into local economies. Republicans have maintained the change would stifle small businesses.
Campaign-finance advocates want strengthened disclosure laws and a publicly funded system.
Libous said those proposals are "devastating."
"I'm not going to contradict what Leader Klein is saying, but I think if they do go to the floor, I think they will be in a different form than what we presently see," Libous said earlier this month. "I think there are creative ways of addressing issues like the minimum wage and creative ways of addressing campaign-finance reform."
Minimum Wage Increase
Klein called a minimum wage increase "a moral necessity," and Senate Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said the hike would "make a difference for so many people."
Stewart-Cousins said Senate Democrats would be open minded to different forms of the minimum-wage bill, but wouldn't want to see a weak bill pass.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the state ethics board have recently revealed plans to reform campaign financing in New York, a system where donors are allowed to contribute a lot but required to disclose very little.
Schneiderman, a first-term Democrat, proposed regulations this month that would require nonprofits registered in New York to report how much they spend on local, state and federal elections. Groups that spend more than $10,000 would have to release to the public an itemized report of expenses.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics recently adopted regulations that require disclosure from lobbyists.
But Cuomo said he has a proposal that will go beyond those regulations.
He said he wants any donor, no matter where they're located, to be covered under the state's disclosure laws. He will lay out more details in his State of the State, he said.