The 2021-22 legislative session begins today, and it promises to be challenging in a variety of ways. The most obvious challenge? Due to the on-going pandemic, lawmakers will likely be doing a lot of their deliberating via Zoom.
On the face of it, that may not seem like such a big a deal. All of us have been making due with an on-line version of life since the spring, right?
Well, it’s not quite the same. Lawmaking isn’t refined. It has more in common with tackle football than debate club. Deals are done in the depths of giant sound-buffering Senate fireplaces. Compromises are cut in the back corner of the Assembly chamber. Lawmakers and lobbyists have even been known to meet over the orange formica tables at Dunkin’ Donuts.
And in a typical year, the public is there.
On any session day, a hodgepodge of stakeholders clog the arteries of the state Capitol: activists, lobbyists, reporters, advocates, attorneys, municipal officials, tour groups. This frenetic fray is a power unto itself, ebbing and flowing with the legislative cycle like the tide. Only this year, that power will be missing, or at least less intense.
What that means has yet to be determined, but the crafting of legislation, which is already done behind closed doors, could become an even murkier exercise.
And then there are the twin pandemics of COVID and the pandemic recession, each of which requires funding to address, yet according to the Governor, the state is broke. But Senator Liz Krueger, head of the powerful Senate Finance committee told Capital Tonight there are at least 17 bills to raise revenue (read: hike taxes) that the Senate is currently considering.
The big question is: Will the floor for a tax hike be $500 thousand or $1 million? Progressive lawmakers, many of them young and from New York City, are pushing for a lower floor than lawmakers from the suburbs, where a half a million a year barely pays for property taxes and summer camp for the kids.
Other issues to watch for? The biggie is federal funding. Another round of federal aid earmarked for state and local governments could change the entire tenor of the session in Albany.
Also on the agenda: New legislation to help bridge the digital divide; a raft of new criminal justice reform bills; election reform to prevent another NY-22; a fight over education funding; and continued pressure to rein in Medicaid spending. There will be on-going battles between tenant and landlord advocates as an eviction “cliff” approaches.
And simmering just below the storm and fury of these issues is a push by the Cuomo administration to put a price on carbon.
What I’ll be watching for? This governor has consolidated power around the state budget more effectively than any of his predecessors. But for the first time in decades, perhaps ever, both chambers have Democratic supermajorities. Will they flex their muscles or not?