Over the past two years, Governor Cuomo has exerted a very strong dominance over NYS politics. He has done that through a triangulation strategy, sometimes working with the Democratic Assembly, and sometimes siding with the Republican Senate. In this election, he even supported and actively campaigned for a Republican incumbent Senator, Steve Saland, who was opposed by both a Tea Party challenger AND Democrat Terry Gipson. While Cuomo cast his support for Republican Senators as a reward for their help in passing Marriage Equality in NYS, many commentators also mentioned that a divided legislature provided Cuomo with much more power than a Democratic Party controlled one. In our system of “3 men in a room” governance here in NY, a conservative Democrat positioned in the Executive branch between a left-leaning Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate has a masterful position, indeed.
New York State, however, continues to trend toward becoming an ever-bluer shade of blue, as might be indicated by Obama’s 63%-36% win over Romney (barely budging from Obama’s last win), or Gillibrand’s even greater 72%-27% win over Long for US Senate. The NYS GOP fought hard and long to draw lines for the NYS Senate that would gerrymander the districts enough to still ensure that GOP incumbent State Senators kept a majority in that house, which has long been their bastion of power in the Empire State. However, ultimately, a judge drew the lines…. and that has resulted in some upsetting of the applecart. Just how much upsetting, however, is difficult to discern from here.
Both parties have announced that they are confident that they will have a majority in the NYS Senate when all the votes are counted. From Capitol Confidential blog:
Democrats finished ahead in four state Senate seats last night, putting them on track for a 33-30 majority in the state’s upper chamber and, consequently, putting the party in charge of every major level of power in the state.
Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chairman Mike Gianaris was quick to boast of his party’s new majority, but Republicans, including Senate Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Libous, were far from rolling over.
In dueling interviews Wednesday morning on WGDJ, each man laid out his case.
“It was a tough night for us, but it is not all lost. We still have some opportunities and options open to us,” Libous, of Binghamton, said.
“The voters of this state sent a very loud and clear message last night that they want to see Democrats in control of the state Senate,” retorted Gianaris, of Queens.
The blog post goes on to explain that there are six things that will actually determine who controls the chamber (you really should go read the whole thing). First, there are still 7,500 paper ballots to be counted in the 46th district, where the Democratic challenger Tkaczyk holds a tiny 139 vote lead. Then, there is the not-insignificant matter of whether or not all Democratic Senators will choose to caucus with the Democratic caucus. Four Democratic Senators formed a break-away caucus, the Independent Democratic Caucus, and often voted with Republicans over the past two years. Additionally, Simcha Felder, who won his seat decisively, recently told the NY Post that
…nothing has changed in the last six months since I announced my candidacy. I said I would caucus with any party that will allow me to deliver the most to the 17th Senate district and its constituents.
And, of course, there is every reason to believe that there will be court challenges brought about results in districts where large numbers of voters faced hardships due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy.
So, realistically, it will not be perfectly clear which party has control of the NYS Senate for some time to come.
However, even if it should turn out, as it looks from here, that the Democrats control the Senate by a 33-30 majority, what effect that will have on the State Senate bills concerned with fracking can’t be immediately discerned. If that seems counter-intuitive, please think about it a little more deeply. Traditionally, when a party in NYS is in the minority in a house of the legislature, it does not have just less power in that house, it has almost no power in that house. That ranges from the funds to hire staff to the ability to move a bill out of committee to the ability to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. Because of this, it becomes extremely easy for legislators in the minority to espouse very pure opinions on controversial issues, and write bills that activists find exemplary. Why is it easy? Because there is none of the give-and-take negotiating that accompanies actually trying to get a bill passed. Secure in the knowledge that nothing they can do has a snowball’s chance in hell of being enacted into law, legislators are free to please advocates 100%, holding nothing back whatever to please even other members of their caucus, let alone the Governor or the other house of the legislature.
Once that minority party finds itself in power in the legislative house, the dynamic changes markedly. Now, there is an established pecking order within the party caucus in the chamber that results in significant horse-trading, often between bills about issues that have absolutely nothing in common with one another, other than the interests of particular Senators who must compromise between each other. Additionally, in the case of NYS Democrats taking over the Senate for the second time in 4 decades, there is the legacy of “the last time this happened” to live down. If the Democrats do ascend to the majority, they will be very motivated to seem prudent, thoughtful, and competent, in order to counter the criticism that the last time that they were in control, the chamber was dysfunctional.
How will a Democratic State Senate deliver on promises to ban fracking? Understanding that there needs to be cooperation from the two other “men in the room” (the Governor and the Speaker of the Assembly) to effect a law, look for an incremental approach. State Senators, newly moved to Committee Chairmanships, will likely begin with smaller steps, while continuing to keep a fracking ban bill in committee, until and unless they can at least pass it through their own chamber. It would be very unsurprising to see a new moratorium, perhaps a full-fledged Health Impact Analysis by an outside, unaffiliated investigator, possibly an assessment of the impact a NYS fracking industry would have on existing industries in the same geography, or an assessment of impacts on housing values, local tax bases, and local government revenues. The antiquated ad-valorem tax that NYS uses to calculate oil and gas taxes might be revamped, or a severance tax initiated.
Perhaps the most important change that could be in the offing, should the Democrats take control of the State Senate, is that Senator Tom Libous of Binghamton would no longer be the second most powerful person in the Senate. Libous is a hard-liner on the fracking question, and his power has weighed heavily in the calculations made by others in NYS government about where they stand on the issue of fracking. While locally, in Broome County, fellow Republican hard-liner and Libous protege Debbie Preston handily won the race for County Executive, it may become increasingly difficult for the people of this district to count on Libous to deliver for them. Slowly, over time, a weaker legislator losses the high level of support that he enjoys in his district when, as a very powerful Senator, he is able to deliver a disproportionate level of pork to his constituents. Arguably, the residents of Tom Libous’s Senate district are the most actively pro-fracking people in NYS. A weaker Libous will allow others– probably most notably Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo– to lead those people toward a different vision of the future. In the end, the ability to lead the people of the Southern Tier to focus on some alternative way of building a prosperous future may be the key to keeping fracking out of our state.