Legislators return to Albany this week, and all eyes will be on the new bipartisan coalition controlling the State Senate.
The five-member Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) led by Sen. Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx) and the 31-member Republican conference led by Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) will govern under joint and equal authority in regard to all Senate functions: the active calendar, budget negotiations, committee appointments and confirmations. But what policy hurdles will face the coalition?
No single issue spotlights the challenge more starkly than education aid, the glue holding together the old Republican majority. Upstate Republicans placed their priority on transportation and economic development projects, while Long Island's Republican senators placed their priority on securing a guaranteed "share" of school aid for their suburban districts. This intra-GOP compact held, despite the fact that upstate's Republican districts have more in common with New York City than Long Island on school-aid formulas.
The new governing coalition has a different math than the old Senate Republican majority. Will the five-member IDC and the 20-member upstate bloc within the GOP's conference continue to give the nine Long Island Republican senators sway on school aid? Veteran Sen. Hugh Farley (R-Schenectady) is under editorial and cartoon assault from his local paper, the Daily Gazette, for being "asleep" on school aid and failing to deliver enough to his local districts. Formulating the Senate's position on this aid in the upcoming budget negotiations will test the mettle of the coalition's leadership.
So too will the proposed minimum wage hike, which is overwhelmingly favored by public opinion -- it has consistently polled at over 70 percent support -- and labor organizations. Yet, a minimum wage hike is strongly opposed by business groups, as well as the Conservative Party. Can Klein's conference justify this coalition to their labor allies if they don't pass a minimum wage hike? Alternatively, is Skelos' conference willing to reach out to the overwhelming majority of voters who support a hike, by moving past the wishes of its base?
Then there's gun control, long a potent issue. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) originally won her seat in Congress as the mother and wife of victims of the Long Island Rail Road massacre in 1993. The tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., bordering so closely to Westchester, could intensify the political punch of gun control in marginal suburban seats. Yet, upstate Republican senators tend to oppose gun control. No surprise, then, that Skelos' recent compromise proposal on gun control brought peace in his conference but didn't go far enough to win support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That could create tension with Klein's group, which wants early, far-reaching action.
In addition, there are three politcally charged issues not yet on the front burner: the Reproductive Health Act, which would guarantee a woman's right to contraception, as well as erase defunct state laws that once criminalized abortion, as advocated by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice last fall; a Dream Act at the state level for aid for higher education, popular in the Hispanic and immigration commnunities; and the green push for climate-change-based infrastructure improvements in the wake of superstorm Sandy.
It's worth noting, in particular, that NARAL Pro-Choice New York injected the strong public support for the Reproductive Health Act into the 2012 campaign (I advised NARAL on that effort). Political observers believe NARAL's effort was essential in the Democratic victories by Ted O'Brien in Rochester and George Latimer in Rye, and a significant factor in the razor-thin margin in the still-undetermined George Amedore-Cecilia Tkaczyk race in the Capital District.
If these sleeper issues are not addressed carefully by the coalition, pro-choice women, Hispanic and green voters could get motivated to turn incumbents out of office in 2014's midterm elections.
The past predictability on how the Republican Senate's majority would handle these six issues has been shattered by the new balance in the Senate. Watching the senators find their equilibrium will be fascinating -- and refreshing. Imagine the prospect of issues driving legislative politics, instead of the reverse.