Time and logic don’t mean much in the capital of New York State. Gravity bends to the laws of the three or four men in the room, one who thinks he doesn’t run a transportation agency he actually does, another who must do the bidding of a few billionaires or perish, and yet another who plays kingpin with a mere conference of eight. The needs of New York City and the state are secondary. Deals must be cut.
One such deal, for mayoral control of city public schools, was finally struck on Thursday. For the first time, Mayor Bill de Blasio will not have to spend the following year begging the state legislature to keep the centralized public school bureaucracy in place. Thanks to Albany’s munificence, de Blasio (assuming he’s re-elected this November) won’t have to beseech lawmakers, particularly the Republican-controlled state senate, to renew his control of schools until 2019.
The deal, reached during a so-called extraordinary session — the governor called lawmakers back to Albany a week after the normal legislative session ended — came with a raft of other goodies, including renaming the Tappan Zee Bridge for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s father, Mario, and the renewal of sales tax provisions. Despite the best efforts of senate Republicans and the conference of eight breakaway Democrats who enable their stranglehold on the legislature, the cap on charter schools statewide was not lifted. No part of the session addresses New York City’s crumbling subway system. Albany didn’t care enough.
The mayoral control deal was enough to coax the city’s timid political class to praise the Albany powers that be and move on. Everyone’s glad for the stability, their stress-free summer vacations to come. The Board of Education isn’t coming back.
Yet the 2017 legislative session and its extraordinary add-on should be remembered for all that wasn’t accomplished. Local government always matters, but Donald Trump certainly raises the stakes: If Washington is going to be a garbage fire, New York must do better. And we aren’t.
Universal health care could come to New York but won’t. Tuition assistance for the undocumented could be a reality but won’t be. Taxes could be implemented to fund an overhaul of the city and state’s catastrophic transit system, but senate Republicans would rather swallow cyanide than raise taxes to pay for public infrastructure.
New York’s retrograde election laws, which bar early voting and same-day registration, keep our turnout rates dismal. Comically lax campaign finance laws allow state lawmakers to spend campaign cash at European restaurants and Tony Robbins seminars while exploiting loopholes to rake in individual donations as high as $60,000 if they decide to run statewide. These same lawmakers can all hold other jobs that benefit directly from the work they do in Albany.
All of it goes back to a governor who campaigned on reforming a broken political system and hasn’t come close to doing that. His accomplishments are real, but so are his failures. He will be up for re-election next year. Three years ago, seeking a second term, he had a surprising amount of trouble fending off a little-known, underfunded law professor in a primary. In 2018, the most progressive voters in New York who show up for Democratic primaries won’t be any more satisfied.
Cuomo has time to survive the corruption trial of his closest aide, stem the bleeding of the city’s subway system, and maybe fix some of the state’s worst election laws before he stands for re-election next fall. He has a little time left to be a different sort of politician, another kind of man. Whether he cares to or wants to is the open question. If he stays the course, New York will stay trapped in the past, where many of its politicians seem to be most comfortable these days.