In Albany, a budget is not simply a budget. It is a vast matrix, a behemoth stew, the mashup of unfathomable sums of money ($168 billion this year) and specific, often unrelated policies. Horses are not merely traded; they are herded and hidden and sometimes euthanized on a whim.
For progressives, the negotiation of a state budget is always dispiriting. This year has been no exception. As in previous years, the four men in the room — the governor, the Republican majority leader, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, and the Democratic assembly speaker — assembled to cut a deal, locking out the female leader of the senate Democrats. Three of these men (as Zephyr Teachout pointed out recently) are unabashedly beholden to real estate and hedge fund interests. And transparency is always an afterthought, with voting occurring mere hours after a budget is produced, leaving legislators no time to read anything.
With the fiscal year set to begin on April 1, the contours of the new budget are taking shape. Republicans, once more, succeeded in killing the priorities of the left.
Typically indifferent to New York’s dismal turnout and retrograde voter laws, Cuomo earlier this year proposed legalizing early voting in this budget. In most states, this is not controversial — voters get days before the actual election to cast votes if they want. But in this new budget, there is no early voting. Why? Republicans didn’t want it.
Phasing out cash bail like New Jersey has done? Nope. Republicans like the bail bond industry.
Passing the Dream Act to give undocumented immigrants tuition assistance in the age of Trump? Republicans said no.
Passing the Child Victims Act so victims of child sex abuse can have more time to bring lawsuits against the people and institutions who enabled or covered up their abuse? Republicans said no.
Codifying Roe v. Wade in the state constitution to guard against potential overreaches of the Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court? Republicans said no.
Putting civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community into statewide law? Republicans said no.
Funding for needy public schools to comply with a decade-old lawsuit? Republicans said no.
Closing a loophole that allows millionaires and billionaires to create unlimited LLCs to circumvent donation limits? What do you think?
Going into 2018, there was a chance that Democrats representing the interests of our city could exert far more influence on the budget process. In the state senate, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, but the GOP holds a one-vote majority thanks to Simcha Felder, a conservative Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the GOP.
While the Republicans can technically run the senate without the IDC’s help, the leader of the breakaway conference, Jeff Klein, remains a “co-leader” of the senate, a title that is Republicans’ acknowledgement that their hold on power, one way or another, will depend on cooperation with Klein.
At the end of last year, two senate seats became vacant after Democrats won other offices. Felder last year stated that he would return to the Democratic fold if the IDC did first — he has said openly he only wants to serve in the majority to grab more funding for his district.
This set up a litmus test for how much Cuomo, a governor who has enabled the IDC and largely allowed the Republicans to keep power, really wanted a Democratic senate. The governor has sole discretion to call special elections — the sooner he acts, the sooner seats are filled.
Many progressives, rightfully, wanted elections called immediately. Had Cuomo acted on January 1, a potential Democratic majority could have been in place by this month, which is by far Albany’s most pivotal.
Instead, Cuomo decided the two special elections would be held on April 24. The 2018 budget was sacrificed for a nebulous reunification deal between the IDC and senate Democrats. Progressives within the IDC districts don’t believe in dropping their guard — seven of the eight IDC members are facing fierce primary challenges.
For any real change in Albany, we will have to wait at least another year. And that’s depending on the outcome of the primary challenges, how many Republicans lose, and what state Cuomo is in — or if he’s there at all — in January 2019.
If the New York State Democratic Party, which is entirely controlled by Cuomo, begins to spend against state senate Republicans, not just House Republicans who have enraged Cuomo, it may just mean the governor is serious about building a strong, progressive Democratic majority. Though he’s had eight years to do this, and here we are.
But for now, this year’s budget is a dud. Blame the senate Republicans, blame the governor, and blame everyone who tolerates the status quo. New York deserves better.