Albany is a funky, opaque place — seemingly divorced from all time and space. The state capital, where the legislature in all its corrupt glory resides, has always been emblematic of a certain New York dysfunction. Good ideas go there to die. Lobbyists go there to get rich.
But something unusual, even by Albany standards, has been happening in recent days. The state senate is literally deadlocked. There are the same number of senators present in the Republican and Democratic conferences.
This is especially odd because there are an odd, not even, number of elected state senators. Sixty-three, to be exact.
The cause of the gridlock, on one hand, is simple: One Republican who is not seeking re-election, Tom Croci of Long Island, resumed active service with the Navy Reserves and left Albany before the end of the legislative session. With Croci absent, the Republicans no longer enjoyed their one-vote majority to pass legislation. At the same time, Senate Democrats still can’t force forward their progressive priorities, though they have tried.
The resulting gridlock isn’t just an inside-baseball concern. It has serious consequences for New York City, which has been a prisoner of Albany since at least the 1970s fiscal crisis.
The legislature has remarkable say over what does and doesn’t happen in the five boroughs. For example, speed cameras, which impose small fines on vehicles that break the 25 mph city speed limit, were installed outside certain school zones in 2014 with the approval of the state legislature. The speed camera program is currently set to expire in July, and by law, City Hall and the City Council cannot expand or even renew the speed camera program without Albany’s approval.
There are currently 140 schools in the speed camera program. All could lose their cameras, which have been proven to deter speeding automobiles, if the Senate doesn’t act before the legislature adjourns today.
Theoretically, a single senator could flip to the opposing caucus to make a majority, but that could come with its own strings attached. State Senator Simcha Felder, a conservative Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, and who chairs the committee that needs to approve the speed camera bill for a vote, has said he won’t vote for a renewal of the program without the Senate acting on his pet issue — adding armed guards and new safety technology at schools. Democrats, understandably, are balking at the cost and the meaning for public school culture if more police with weapons enter the hallways.
Other pending legislative items, including scrapping the specialized high school test, legalizing sports betting, ending cash bail, and legalizing marijuana, are highly unlikely to be taken up in the 2018 session. Once lawmakers adjourn, they won’t be back in Albany until January, barring a special session.
This means that another year will have passed with little in the way of significant legislation coming out of Albany. New York’s voting and campaign finance laws will remain among the worst in the country until at least 2019. Universal healthcare, the DREAM Act, and statewide civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community will similarly not become a reality in New York before next year.
It’s important to understand the history here. This latest example of Albany dysfunction — a peculiarly gridlocked Senate — is neither an accident nor the fault of one state senator who decided to leave Albany early. Democrats could have built a majority a long time ago, had the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference unified with the main party years ago instead of forming a power-sharing alliance with Republicans — something Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t see fit to put an end to until earlier this year.
Republicans have survived in power not only with the IDC’s help, but also with the help of gerrymandered districts that, in 2012, were redrawn with Cuomo’s blessing. The oft-maligned Felder presides over a Brooklyn district that was engineered to elect a Republican or conservative Democrat, and which favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
There are many like it across New York State.
We can never know what Democratic unification years ago would have looked like, but one conference fundraising together with a powerful governor’s help could have stood up to a Republican conference backed to the hilt with cash from the real estate industry, Wall Street, and the Mercers.
Even now, with excitement for progressive politics growing every day, Republicans enter the midterm with a healthy fundraising advantage. Senate Republicans have $1.5 million in their campaign account, according to a recent state filing, compared to the Democrats’ less than $700,000.
The dynamics for next year are unclear. We could be entering a new era of unified Democratic control or yet another year of divided government. The speed camera program could expand to every single school zone or die altogether.
Perhaps we may get the most unlikely outcome at all, or at least the one that seems farfetched from where we sit: a healthy, functional state government in New York.
We can always dream.
Ross Barkan is a frequent Village Voice contributor who is running for State Senate in Brooklyn as a Democrat.