ALBANY - They're back. And better than ever? Well, we'll see.
But for now, the "Long Island Nine" is intact - nine Republican state senators representing Nassau and Suffolk counties. The pack could be a potent force: Not only does it make up more than a quarter of the 32-vote Republican Senate conference, it also features the new Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre. On paper, Long Island hasn't had this much sway in the State Legislature since 1994, when the catchphrase about the lawmakers was "they could stop anything."
That translates to "more clout, more power, more ability to do things for Long Island," said Steven Greenberg, a Siena College pollster and former top aide to two Assembly speakers.
"Having the majority leader from Long Island increases Long Island's political clout in state government dramatically," Greenberg said, noting the bounty former majority leaders Joseph Bruno and Warren Anderson brought to their home regions, the Albany suburbs and Binghamton, respectively.
The power swing to Long Island became official this week when Skelos was sworn in as Senate leader. Also, freshmen Jack Martins (R-Mineola) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) took their seats in the Senate for the first time. Martins' narrow victory over Democrat Craig Johnson - validated by the courts just two weeks ago - gave Republicans a 32-30 edge in the chamber.
It's not clear if the bloc will have the same power as in its glory days like when it thwarted a statewide $22-billion transit package in 1993 because the delegation felt Long Island wouldn't get a big enough share.
But even if they do wield power, delegation members say that in these lean times they are trying to think realistically about what they can accomplish.
"It's a lot different when you have money versus dealing with a [$10-billion state] deficit," Skelos said.
To illustrate, Skelos pointed to the fact that Long Island traditionally received about 13 percent of education aid. When school aid was cut statewide two years ago, Long Island aid was reduced 15 percent. But when it was increased last year, Long Island received just 5 percent of the hike.
"That won't happen this time," vowed Skelos, the first Senate majority leader from Long Island since Ralph Marino was ousted in 1994.
Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) said the delegation's power comes from its ability to vote as one on regional economic and educational issues - all the senators interviewed this week said their priorities would be economic development, private sector job growth and a property tax cap.
The kind of power the bloc wielded in the past - the ability to hold up legislation - wasn't fully appreciated until the past two years, said Desmond Ryan, a veteran Albany lobbyist. With Democrats in control of the Senate, Ryan noted that Long Island was hit with the MTA payroll tax and the closure of a poison control center in Nassau County.
Republicans held the Senate for four decades before losing it in the 2008 elections. They regained it briefly in 2009 when two Democrats said they were switching sides, only to switch back. But after a series of Democratic scandals, voters returned the GOP to power last fall.
Because power in the Senate historically has been seniority based, at first blush it might appear that the delegation is weaker than in the old days because it features two freshmen. But because the GOP holds a precarious 32-30 advantage, Zeldin and Martins should get help in delivering school aid and pork-barrel spending to their home districts.
One thing's for sure, as the 2011 session ramps up, the Long Island Senate delegation is promising no repeat of 2008.
"The Senate Republicans have been given an opportunity and I think we should do everything to turn the state around," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport). "If we squander that opportunity, shame on us - but I don't think that will happen."
With James T. Madore
and Michael Amon