New chance for LI pols in State Senate

Jack Martins emerges the victor in the 7th Jack Martins emerges the victor in the 7th Senate District after the election was formerly certified by a judge on Saturday. (Dec. 4, 2010) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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For the past two years, Long Island's seven Republican state senators complained that they were shut out of a state governing process that concentrated power among New York City Democrats, depriving Nassau and Suffolk of school aid funding and socking businesses with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax.

Now that the GOP holds a slim 32-30 Senate majority set to take office Jan. 1, they're navigating the distance between being the party of "no" and the party in charge.

With Republican Mineola Mayor Jack Martins' victory over Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) certified Saturday, coupled with Shirley attorney Lee Zeldin's defeat of Sen. Brian X. Foley (D-Blue Point) last month, the GOP will hold all nine Long Island State Senate seats. Republicans who campaigned pledging to rescind the much-maligned MTA payroll tax and implement the 2-percent property tax cap proposed by Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo will have little time before voters expect them to make good on their promises.

Dems still rule Assembly

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Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) is set to regain his majority leader post, but his path to enacting those campaign promises won't be an easy one. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) will retain his grip over the lower house of state government.

Skelos offered no specifics Sunday on how he would replace the $1.2 billion in state revenue that would disappear if the MTA payroll tax is repealed. Senate Democrats passed the tax in 2009 on a party-line vote.

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New York State faces a projected $9-billion 2011-12 deficit.

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Repeal of the tax is "something that has to be seriously considered by the governor and by the Assembly leadership," Skelos said. "I would be supportive of its repeal as part of a total budget package. Our focus has to be to cut spending."

While Skelos did not directly answer questions about Long Island's increased clout in Albany, observers were quick to point out that a Republican Senate is likely to fight for an increase in the region's state school aid and a return of STAR property tax rebate checks. Democrats eliminated the rebate checks in last year's budget to save $1 billion for the state.

"We all know how things are decided in Albany," Long Island Association chief executive Kevin Law said of state government's three-men-in-a-room decision-making culture. "To have somebody like Dean sitting at the table, we can be assured that Long Island's interests are represented."

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Party, region feuds still loom

Senate Democrats, for their part, have not conceded the loss of Johnson's seat and the majority. Johnson said Saturday that he plans to appeal State Supreme Court Justice Ira Warshawsky's decision to certify Martins' victory Monday.

On Sunday, the Senate Democrats' spokesman, Austin Shafran, said he does not agree with "the premise of Republicans being in control" but said the two parties must work together.

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"Given the narrowness of the margin and the election of new members, there will have to be strong bipartisanship on every critical issue," Shafran said.

One issue where there has not been much bipartisanship is gay marriage. A year ago, Democratic leadership brought a gay marriage bill to a vote only to see it fail 38-24, even though Skelos announced he had freed Republicans to vote their "conscience."

Skelos, who like his 29 GOP colleagues voted against the bill last year, pledged in October to let the new Senate session vote on the measure, though Sunday he said the state's immediate fiscal issues will take precedent.

"Right now the people of this state want us to deal with the deficit," he said. "They want us to cut taxes, have a property tax cap and stop inhibiting the growth of jobs."

Decisions made in the next year will color who serves in state government for the next decade, as lawmakers perform the task of drawing boundaries of their own and congressional districts based on the decennial U.S. Census data. As long as the GOP controls the Senate, they can block New York City Democrats from effectively drawing them into extinction. Conversely, Republicans may seek to protect incumbents like Martins and Senator-elect Mike Grisanti of Buffalo.

"There are going to be major trades as Cuomo tries to weave his way between the Democrats in the Assembly and the Senate Republicans," said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff. "What specifics emerge and what gets chopped, that's going to be the results of a delicate negotiation process."

Fate of four major issues under GOP-led State Senate

MTA PAYROLL TAX:

After campaigning on rescinding the unpopular tax on Downstate businesses, Republicans have little choice but to seek its repeal. But removing it will require the cooperation of New York City-centric Assembly Democrats and Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, who have not indicated it is a priority. "It's such an infamous, self-explanatory tax that is has to be addressed," said Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City). "Will they [the Assembly and Cuomo] go along with it? I'm not sure they know what they'll go along with."

GAY MARRIAGE:

Democrats could muster only 24 of their 32 members to vote for a 2009 gay marriage bill that drew zero GOP support. But Cuomo signaled strong support for the issue on the campaign trail. Ross Levi, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said his group will remind senators of their colleagues Frank Padavan (R-Jamaica Estates) and William Stachowski (D-Buffalo), who each voted against gay marriage and lost re-election bids last month. "Elected officials have to be thinking, 'Do I want that target turning on me?' " Levi said.

SCHOOL AID:

When the Democratic legislature increased school funding in Gov. David Paterson's 2009-10 budget, Nassau and Suffolk got 6 percent of the new money. And when they cut school aid in the 2010-11 budget, Long Island took 16 percent of the reduction. With a block of GOP senators in the majority, the region can expect to return to its traditional 13 percent of all state school aid.

REDISTRICTING:

Had Democrats retained control of the Senate along with the Assembly and Executive Mansion, they could have redrawn district lines with the decennial U.S. Census figures to reduce the number of seats Republicans could win. Cuomo has called for an independent commission to handle redistricting. Republicans, said Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York, "have been spending two years trumpeting their commitment to reform. It is now incumbent on them and on us and on the press to remind them on what they said in the past and hold them to that."

- REID EPSTEIN

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