By MICHAEL GARETH JOHNSON
Increased education funding, more protections for tenants, fixing the subways and easier access to voting are all things Queens residents could see in the next few years, according to Democratic lawmakers who are viewing Tuesday’s capturing of the state Senate by the Dems as an opening for a host of legislation that is more in line with the values and desires of the borough’s residents.
Democrats are expected to hold 39 or 40 seats in the 63-seat chamber when all votes are counted, picking up a handful of seats on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley, as well as flipping a Republican seat in Brooklyn. The majority will contain more than a dozen new members of the Conference, many of them more progressive than their predecessors.
The Queens delegation in the state Senate is entirely Democratic, with representatives James Sanders Jr., John Liu, Jessica Ramos, Leroy Comrie, Michael Gianaris, Toby Ann Stavisky and Joseph Addabbo.
Republicans have held the state Senate for decades, except for a short two-year period in 2009 and 2010. In recent years, they have blocked Democrats’ efforts on a host of issues, from expanding healthcare and increasing funding of New York City schools, to codifying in state law a woman’s right to control her own reproduction. Most recently, the GOP blocked an expansion of speed cameras in school zones in the borough, forcing Gov. Cuomo to use an executive order to keep the cameras up and running.
“No two senators are the same. But a common thread of all Democratic candidates was the reproductive health act, child victims and common-sense gun control,” said Evan Stavisky, a veteran consultant and son of Queens Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky. “A Conference this diverse, with urban, suburban and rural members, will likely have healthy debates, but fundamentally these bills now have leadership willing to bring them to floor if there is consensus.”
Another issue that could be addressed by Democrats in Albany is voting reform. Features like early voting and same-day registration are possible, but may not happen right away. The state Constitution limits legislators’ power in reforming voting laws, so some of the more progressive plans to increase access to the ballot could require a constitutional amendment, which would be on the ballot in 2021 at the earliest.
Also on the docket for Democrats is expanding healthcare coverage. Many incoming state senators have talked about universal healthcare for all residents. Last year the Assembly passed the NY Health Act, which would establish a single-payer system in the state covering all individuals. The bill wasn’t brought up for a vote in the Senate. Even supporters of the legislation say the bill likely would need to be amended to address the high cost of the program, so its passage seems unlikely this year. But the legislature could move to codify Obamacare in state law. Currently, the exchanges set up in the state are done so by executive order from the governor and are not protected in legislation.
The shift in power in the Senate also opens up an opportunity for Democrats to put forward bolder legislation that was simply a pipe dream in the past. During the campaign, newly elected state Sen. John Liu talked about the prospect of property tax reform. Jessica Ramos, also newly elected, spoke about the city’s taking over control of the city’s transit system, which would require action in the state legislature. All of these measures are possible, but voters shouldn’t expect them to necessarily come to fruition in the next year.
While the Conference is primarily made up of New York City representatives, suburban and rural members will likely be less inclined to stick their necks out to pass progressive legislation that may be controversial in their districts. In two years, if Democrats hold on to the Chamber in the 2020 elections, that inclination could change. Democrats would be in a position to redraw state district lines, all but guaranteeing that the Senate will be controlled by the party for the foreseeable future.
One thing is clear from election night: Government in New York State just got a lot more progressive, leaving elected officials in Queens with fewer excuses for failing to deliver on policies they have promised for years.