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Skelos blocks Stewart-Cousins' plan to build State Senate majorities

New York state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) gavels

New York state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) gavels from the podium during a New York Senate session at the Capitol in Albany. (June 22, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

Late last year, when Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) became Democratic leader in the New York State Senate, she figured she could build majorities on issues like women's rights and the minimum wage by appealing to the socially progressive instincts of the breakaway Democrats who had formed a governing coalition with Republicans in the chamber.

It turns out Stewart-Cousins was mostly right about the breakaway Democrats, but mostly wrong about the way things would work out, at least so far.

The power-sharing agreement between Senate Republicans and the five Democratic senators in the Independent Democratic Conference states that legislation will not be brought up for a vote unless both sides agree. So far, Stewart-Cousins says, GOP leaders successfully employed that provision to block progressive measures that both Democratic caucuses want to advance.

For example, on March 5, the Assembly passed a bill to increase the state's minimum wage to $9 an hour next year and to increase it automatically, in line with inflation, beginning in 2015.

Together, the 27 Democrats and five IDC members had the 32 votes needed to pass the measure in the 63-member chamber, Stewart-Cousins says.

But Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the Republican leader, opposed the increase, saying it would place an unwelcome drag on the economy. So the measure died.


Stewart-Cousins suggested that Skelos is now the only impediment to enactment of a progressive agenda.

"We're not asking for every single person to vote for it," she said of the minimum wage legislation. "You don't need every single person to vote for it. Bring it to the floor."

Other Democrats expressed frustration that the Republican minority might stymie legislation on women's rights, campaign finance reform, legalizing medical marijuana, banning hydrofracking and other proposals important to progressives.

IDC spokesman Eric Soufer recently confirmed that the group supports the minimum wage legislation as well as other progressive issues. IDC leader Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) has called for increasing the minimum wage when lawmakers enact the state budget in the coming weeks, Soufer said.

"We have a progressive agenda," Soufer said. "We're working with the governor and all our colleagues to enact that agenda."

A spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declined to comment on matters internal to the Senate, referring Newsday instead to remarks Cuomo made March 7, after a speech at SUNY Purchase.

"I think it's very important, and I think we will increase the minimum wage this year," Cuomo said. "I have kept my fingers crossed, but we've had good conversations on both sides of the aisle."

Assurances from Soufer and the governor aren't enough for some Democrats. Mainstream Democrats warned of inaction when the IDC and Republicans announced their coalition last year.

"The onus on productivity falls first, jointly and equally, on Klein and Skelos, second on the governor and third on Stewart-Cousins," said Bruce Gyory, an Albany-based Democratic political strategist. "And if it's not productive, she's going to have the ability to say 'I told you so.'"


Adding to the Democrats' frustration is a wave of popular resentment over Cuomo's success in enacting gun control legislation -- the NY SAFE Act -- in January, a month after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. The new gun law was hailed by progressives as a landmark reform, but Republican lawmakers have come under withering criticism from gun advocates for not scuttling it.

"There was definitely pushback in Republican circles over the SAFE Act, especially over the way it was rammed through," said Bill O'Reilly, a Republican political consultant. "The concern wasn't just over guns, but over the alacrity with which Republicans in the Senate went along."

Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) -- a bitter opponent of the SAFE Act -- echoed that sentiment. His caucus needs to serve its function as a check on one-party rule, he said.

"The day may certainly come when New York City Democrats have full control over New York State," Ball said. "And at that time Senator Cousins and her New York City friends will have full reign to tax, regulate and spend every man, woman, child and a few cats and dogs out of the state."

Republicans stress that they've worked well with the Democratic governor since he was elected in 2011, passing budgets on schedule for the first time in decades. They aren't obstructionists, said Stephen Reif, a spokesman for Skelos.

"Senator Skelos has said we'll have a discussion on the minimum wage this year," Reif said. "On hydrofracking, he's said the Department of Environmental Conservation and Health Department should be able to complete their review so the governor can make an informed and final discussion."

Stewart-Cousins says Democrats are standing by.

"What we have continually done is position ourselves to inform our partners that we are ready," she said. "Unfortunately, unless it comes to the floor, our 27 votes don't matter."

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