On Wednesday, as a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, state lawmakers returned for a new legislative session, hoping to revive New York amid an ongoing pandemic that has killed more than 38,000 people in the state.
Many of the legislators did not arrive physically at the state capitol building in Albany. Instead, due to COVID-19 restrictions, meetings were held remotely, as lawmakers began what may be some of the most consequential session days of their political careers. The pandemic, in addition to killing tens of thousands, has caused severe economic damage across the state, creating a budget shortfall that Governor Andrew Cuomo has said amounts to at least $15 billion over two years.
For the third consecutive year, Democrats control both chambers of the legislature. Thanks to gains in the State Senate last fall, they now wield veto-proof majorities in the Assembly and Senate for the first time in modern history, lending them new leverage over Cuomo, who has so far been able to determine the pandemic response without much legislative input. The virus first appeared in New York during negotiations on the state budget, and Cuomo won sweeping new emergency powers that allowed him to govern largely alone.
“This session is going to be colored almost entirely by the budget gap and the consequences of that,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who is the deputy leader of the majority. “For us, that fight will be about maximizing revenue as opposed to allowing spending cuts.”
Throughout 2020, Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, was able to unilaterally withhold money from various towns, cities, and state agencies, effective cuts that were as high as 20 percent for each department or locality. Though the Cuomo administration denied these were actual cuts—money was “withheld” and not explicitly detailed in publicly available documents—the outcomes were largely the same. Public schools and various local governments laid off employees. At the City University of New York, about 3,000 adjuncts were cut in the fall semester, and class offerings were radically curtailed.
Democrats, particularly the emboldened progressives in the Assembly and Senate, are hoping to undo these cutbacks and raise taxes on the wealthy. Cuomo, a fiscal centrist, rejected the idea throughout the pandemic before expressing openness to tax hikes in December. With both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in support of raising taxes, the question is no longer if taxes will be raised, but how high—and which proposals will be voted on. The Assembly and Senate have been at odds, with the Senate pushing for more aggressive tax hikes.
There is also the question of federal aid: for months, Cuomo insisted that President Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, would authorize billions of dollars in bailout funds for New York, despite their hostility to left-leaning states. The political reality for New York may improve dramatically when Joe Biden takes office on January 20th and Democrats take control of the Senate, with New York’s Chuck Schumer as majority leader.
In the meantime, there are many different kinds of tax hikes and revenue raising bills on the table. Capital gains taxes, taxes on large inheritances, stock transfer taxes, and new corporate taxes are all being proposed, along with taxes on vacant second properties. Some combination, advocates have argued, could raise tens of billions annually.
Cuomo could potentially reject all of them—the governor hasn’t expressed support for any specific proposal.
Gianaris, who supports many of the far-reaching tax proposals, said straightforward income tax hikes on millionaires and billionaires may be the most likely to pass both chambers and become law.
“They’re the easiest ones to do, the easiest to administer,” Gianaris said.
Beyond taxes, New Yorkers should expect two major law changes that have stalled in recent years: the legalization of marijuana and online sports betting. With the state bleeding billions of dollars, both are expected to offer new, renewable revenue streams for the state. Neighboring New Jersey has legalized both.
Hoping to build on criminal justice reforms passed in 2019, advocates are aiming to overhaul New York’s parole system and make it easier for the elderly to be released from prison. They want to curtail solitary confinement and ban qualified immunity for police officers.
Electoral reform groups are planning bills that would make absentee and early voting easier and change the election law so New York isn’t the last nation in the country to count ballots. Progressives want to grant voting rights to people on parole. The good government group Common Cause is pushing lawmakers to drastically reform the scandal-plagued Board of Elections, transforming it into a more competent, nonpartisan agency with local oversight.
The electoral overhauls will likely be easier than the changes to the criminal justice laws. Cuomo, with legislative leaders, rolled back bail reform last year and Senate Democrats survived a challenging re-election cycle as a billionaire Cuomo ally and the police unions hammered them for votes taken in the past.
Bigger ticket items—like passing the New York Health Act and banning rent collections during the pandemic—are on the agenda for the most progressive lawmakers, especially the newly-elected Democrats from New York City. Gianaris, an ally of the younger progressives, is pushing his own intriguing reform—a law that would make it far easier for New York to sue large tech giants for anti-competitive behavior.
“I want this to be a legendary session,” said State Senator Jabari Brisport, a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. “It comes down to whether we have the political will.”
Brisport said he would aim, through tax increases, to grow the state budget by “tens of billions” of dollars. Cuomo and the two legislative leaders are less likely to embrace such ambition.
But some lawmakers, restive after a year of deferring to Cuomo, appear willing to push back on leadership. One fight will be over the sunset of Cuomo’s emergency powers, which will come at the end of March. Legislators have say over whether they are renewed.
Yuh-Line Niou, a Democratic assembly member from Manhattan, lamented that taxes weren’t raised last year to forestall budget cuts that already hammered social services, like the food pantries and settlement houses in her district.
“A lot of different things could have been done to have been that stopgap,” Niou said. “It would’ve been a much smaller dollar amount than the exponentially growing dollar amount we are going to need to raise.”