NY State Senate coalition draws gripes from both sides

From left, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senate Majority

From left, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Senate co-leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) appear at a news conference in Albany. (Jan. 30, 2013) (Credit: AP)

During the first three months of the legislative session, the leaders of a new, unusual coalition governing the State Senate said they heard it from all political corners.

Upstate Republicans grumbled about Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and the leftward political drift after the chamber approved a new, comprehensive gun control law. At the same time, moderate Republicans worried about every vote becoming a litmus test for support from party faithful and conservatives.

Skelos' partner, Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), heard it from the left: He sold out on a diluted minimum wage hike. He didn't push Skelos enough on easing marijuana laws or allowing children of illegal immigrants to participate in New York's college aid programs.


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Skelos and Klein said getting complaints from both sides means one thing. "It means we've struck a balance," Skelos said.

The five-member Independent Democratic Conference is led by Klein, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester. He is joined by David Carlucci of Clarkstown, Diane Savino of Staten Island, Malcolm Smith of Queens and David Valesky of Syracuse.

Forging a coalition with the breakaway Democrats last December to control the chamber gave Republicans sway in budget negotiations. Without that, the state's spending plan would look different, Skelos said.

"If we were in the minority, there would not have been business tax cuts," he said. "School aid would have been much more New York City-centric. There would not have been a family tax credit. Minimum wage would be at a higher number and not phased in."

Carlucci declined to comment for this story.

DEMS COMPLAIN OF WATERED-DOWN AGENDA

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), leader of the Senate Democratic Conference, said the minimum wage deal -- which will increase the wage during the next three years instead of one year -- was "disappointing" and said that if all Senate Democrats worked together, they could have enacted a stronger wage hike. She said the state budget also fell short on helping middle-class and working-class families as well as providing financial aid to local governments and school districts.

Stewart-Cousins and other local lawmakers had pushed for Senate approval of increased local aid to cities -- which under the Assembly's budget plan would have increased local funds by $120 million -- but Senate Republicans opposed it.

"As legislators, we have a responsibility to use tax dollars wisely to grow our state's economy and assist New Yorkers who continue to struggle during these difficult economic times," Stewart-Cousins said.

Skelos, a veteran Nassau County politician, said he was "90 percent happy" with a budget deal with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Klein and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan). By passing the final bill midnight Thursday, they beat the April 1 budget deadline by three days.

The fiscal 2014 spending plan would increase spending by less than 2 percent, to about $135 billion. The total increases to $142 billion when federal aid for superstorm Sandy is included.

Some of the budget highlights include a 5 percent increase in school aid, a minimum wage hike, an extension of the so-called "millionaires' tax," an array of business tax cuts and a $350 "family tax relief" a rebate check for households with at least one child. Families will receive the "tax relief" checks next year, an election year.

A 'REGRESSIVE MESSAGE'?

As with every budget, major elements reflected political compromises. For example, minimum wage will grow to $9 per hour by the end of 2015, as many Democrats favored. But the deal doesn't tie future increases to inflation and it includes generous tax credits for companies that pay minimum wage -- elements Republicans wanted.

The settlement was due, in large part, to the Senate coalition.

In last year's elections, Democrats won 33 of 63 Senate seats. But Republicans formed a governing coalition with six renegade Democrats to seize control of the chamber.

Skelos and Klein agreed to share not only the title of Senate leader but also control of the chamber's agenda.

"Sometimes we talked before" the leaders' meetings, Skelos said, referring to Klein. "It was fluid. Sometimes, we just went and sat down and just stated what was on our minds."

Skelos had been under fire from conservative critics after he supported Cuomo's gun control law in January -- most Republican senators voted against it. Some even suggested he might face an internal revolt, though that hasn't happened.

Later, business groups criticized the minimum wage hike, the extension of the surcharge on those who earn $1 million or more annually and the partial renewal of a utility tax.

The National Federation of Independent Business said the budget "sends a difficult and regressive message to small-business owners across New York." The Committee to Save New York, a deep-pocketed business group allied with the governor, said it was disappointed in the millionaires' tax.

On the other side, Hispanic legislators criticized Klein's band and Cuomo for not backing college aid for children of illegal immigrants.

LEADERSHIP CLAIMS BIPARTISANSHIP

Privately, some Democrats said Klein allowed Skelos to control the Senate agenda, saying little had changed even though their party won in November.

Klein said he doubted whether Democrats could have advanced either issue without Republican support. " 'Negotiation' is not a dirty word," he said. "We are coming together and making compromises in a serious, civil way."

Skelos said most New Yorkers want politicians to find middle ground. "People on Long Island, most people in the state, are in the middle," he said. "They are moderate."

Many observers have pointed out that legislators are under pressure to make the April 1 budget deadline, regardless of who is leading the houses. Miss it and a governor could impose his budget, leaving legislators the options of agreeing with the governor or shutting down government.

Even so, Skelos said the timely budget proves the coalition's success.

"The way I look at it, many thought the coalition would lead to dysfunction," he said. "What it has led to is bipartisanship."

With Christian Wade

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