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Politics & Government

A State Senate Controlled by Democrats Might Pass Long-Stalled Issues

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There’s a greater chance than ever that the Senate could be dominated by Democrats after the November 8th election.  Many issues stalled in the Republican led Senate for years would now have a possibility of passing.

Campaign finance reform,  the Dream Act- which offers college tuition support to the children of undocumented immigrants- and more money for underperforming schools are just a few of the topics that might be approved under a Senate controlled by Democrats.

Governor Cuomo is betting on that happening, and he’s been more active this election cycle in bolstering Democratic candidates. He spoke at a rally for incumbent Senator George Latimer in Westchester on October 30th.

He says at the top of his agenda will be ethics changes to respond to a string of corruption scandals. They have so far been resisted by the Republicans who lead the Senate.

We have one more big piece that we have to do,” Cuomo said. “And that is ethics reform in Albany.”

The governor most recently has been pushing for limits to lawmakers’ outside income. Both former leaders of the legislature are facing jail time for illegally monetizing their positions as legislators for personal gain.

Groups that have long supported ethics reforms say Senate Democrats would likely be better on the issue.  

Jessica Wisneski is with the group Citizen Action, which is pushing for campaign finance reforms. They include  closing a loophole  that allows donors to form Limited Liability companies and bypass rules that set caps on donations to candidates.

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The senate chamber in the capitol building.

There’s never a guarantee that you can get anything in Albany,” Wisneski said. “But the likelihood that things will move forward on campaign finances reform is much greater under the Democrats.”

Cuomo has said in the past that he backs public financing of campaigns, but has not pushed as actively for it as he has for other issues, like raising the minimum wage.  Wisneski, whose group supports public campaign financing, says with Democrats in charge of the Senate, it’s more likely that they will respond to what she says is increasing voter demands to get big money out of politics.  She says the popularity of the Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, who said his average campaign donation was $27, is evidence of that.

The public at large is very ready for a deep change of course,” she said.

Wisneski says long stalled criminal justice reforms could also move under a Democratic Senate.  She says New York is one of the only states to still sentence 16 and 17 year olds convicted of felonies to adult prisons.

Raise the age has bipartisan support from DA’s and local law enforcement, but it’s been blocked for years,” Wisneski said.

Governor Cuomo, while pushing progressive social issues, has also been a fiscal conservative during his tenure in office.  And, he’s relied on Republicans in the Senate to back a property tax cap and a voluntary limit on state spending growth to 2 percent per year.  

Democrats traditionally have a reputation of being more open to raising taxes than do Republicans.  Cuomo has been warning gatherings of Democratic candidates and their supporters that they, too, should be careful about spending increases or raising taxes.

FUTURE OF MILLIONARE'S TAX AT STAKE

If the State Senate is controlled by Democrats after the election, there could be some differences over taxing and spending policies.  Many Democrats favor extending an income tax surcharge on millionaires when it expires next spring.

New York currently has a temporary income tax surcharge on the wealthy. The additional taxes affect those making over $300,000 a year, and up, with the rates growing higher for income over $1 million , and at the highest rate for $5 million  a year or more.

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The State Capitol Building in Albany.

The tax was first imposed during a budget crisis in 2009. Governor Cuomo, after an initial hesitation, has agreed with the legislature to extend the surcharge two more times.

Many more Democrats than Republicans back the tax on the rich, and Democrats have the best chance in years in controlling the Senate after the November 8thelections.  

Ken Giardin, with the fiscal watchdog group the Empire Center, says the tax should not be renewed.

There’s a big danger in becoming too dependent on these sorts of income tax revenues,” Giardin said. “Because of their volatility”.

He says the income tax, which many businesses also pay, is susceptible to economic slowdowns and declines on Wall Street. The state’s income tax collections are already lower than originally projected for this year.

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Hear part two of the story from Capital Correspondent Karen DeWitt.

Jessica Wisneski, with the progressive group Citizen Action, says keeping the tax is one way of offsetting income inequality.

I hope to see them extended so the richest among us pay their fair share,” Wisneski said.  “And relieve the burden on local taxpayers.”

Giardin’s group the Empire Center is non partisan.  But he says it may not matter which party ultimately rules the Senate when it comes to the millionaire’s tax.  He points out that it was the GOP led Senate that went along with extending the millionaire’s tax, twice. 

I don’t think you can say that one party is more likely than another to raise taxes here,” he said.

Governor Cuomo, who has been attending rallies to promote Democrats for the Senate, is also warning them  to be fiscally conservative.  Cuomo’s been a supporter of the state’s property tax cap, and has held the growth of state spending down to 2 percent per year.   

“We’ve shown you can be fiscally responsible and you can be socially progressive,” Cuomo said at a rally on Long Island on October 24th.

But the governor has not said whether or not he thinks the millionaire’s tax should be extended, saying he prefers to deal with the issue next year.