As New York Democrats look ahead to two years of majority control of the State Senate — and the Assembly and the governor’s mansion — they should also remember the past and learn from their predecessors’ mistakes.
Democrats last controlled all three branches of state government a decade ago. Before that, they hadn’t controlled all three since 1965. And their 2008 reign didn’t last long. In 2009, Republicans staged a coup for control of the Senate, with two Democratic defectors voting with GOP senators to replace Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, with Dean Skelos, a Republican from Rockville Centre. Then, in the 2010 election, the GOP took back control of the Senate.
The short-lived Democratic control of the three branches was marked by New York City-centric legislation, gridlock, a rapid increase in spending and party infighting. A particularly unfair — and much maligned — measure was the commuter tax, which was intended to bail out the fiscally troubled Metropolitan Transportation Authority by imposing a payroll tax on counties served by the MTA.
The commuter tax charged businesses, nonprofit agencies, local governments and school districts 34 cents on every $100 of payroll. It placed an undue burden on local businesses and nonprofits, while forcing local governments to raise property taxes to meet expenses.
The commuter tax was chosen over a plan to institute a combination of a payroll tax and East River bridge tolls, which would have increased revenue for the MTA and encouraged more people to ride the Long Island Rail Road instead of driving into the city, which in turn would have helped reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
Democrats can ill afford another fiasco like the commuter tax. Controlling taxes must be a major item on their 2019 agenda. Given the certainty that 52 percent of Nassau residents will see their property tax bills rise under reassessment, and given that President Trump has largely eliminated the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes, many Long Islanders may soon be paying substantially higher tax bills.
At the same time, Democrats will have to find ways to increase school aid to districts as they continue to increase safety measures in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Fla., last year.
None of this will be easy.
Democrats won the majority in both houses of the Legislature in part because of Long Island’s shifting demographics, with an increasing population of immigrants and minorities who have traditionally voted Democratic. At the same time, they ran on a “progressive” platform touted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including measures to increase abortion rights and legalize recreational marijuana. Now they will have to pass that agenda while honoring the concerns of conservatives.
Also on the legislative agenda:
• The possible creation of a universal health care system for New York.
• Strengthening of the state’s already tough gun laws by potentially implementing a “red flag” law, which would permit police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may be a danger to others or himself.
• Passage of the Child Victims Act, which would allow sexual assault victims who were violated as children to sue their abusers.
Legalization of recreational marijuana has received mixed reviews among Long Islanders, many of whom worry about a possible increase in driving under the influence of the drug and a potential rise in use among teenagers. Both are legitimate concerns. That’s why we are urging state officials to go slowly on this issue.
Cuomo has emphasized the need to strengthen abortion laws for many years. New York was the first state to legalize abortion in 1970, three years before it became a federal law in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. With the Supreme Court becoming increasingly conservative, Cuomo has pushed to pass a bill in New York to strengthen a woman’s right to choose. Detractors have criticized the proposal, however, saying it would make late-term abortions available for almost any reason and permit health providers other than doctors to perform abortions.
While state Democrats ride a wave of blue into Albany, they must remember that the tide could turn in 2020 if they aren’t careful — much like it did in 2010.