clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

New York’s State Senate Democrats Gain a Supermajority. What Could They Do With It?

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks in Albany during the start of the 2020 session, Jan. 8, 2020.
State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks in Albany during the start of the 2020 session, Jan. 8, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Nearly three weeks after Election Day, Democrats in New York’s State Senate say they’ve won enough seats to give them a veto-proof supermajority — giving them power to push everything from additional pandemic eviction protections to further taxing the rich.

After a count of mail-in-ballots, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) declared Monday that Democrats secured 42 seats in the 63-member Senate, growing her ruling majority by at least two and nabbing a supermajority. The outcome of four more races has yet to be determined as the absentee ballot count continues.

“By sending a supermajority of Senate Democrats to Albany, New Yorkers have made it clear that they want government to keep working for them and standing up for New York values,” Stewart-Cousins said at a news conference in Albany.

Despite a sizable edge in voter registrations statewide, Democrats gained control of the Senate just two years ago, after years of mostly Republican rule furthered by district gerrymandering.

The Senate’s new Democratic supermajority — giving them the two-thirds party line vote needed to override any veto — would join the one already in place for two decades in the 150-member state Assembly.

The party’s combined strength between the two legislative houses promises to change the power dynamics in Albany.

New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie speaks in support of nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, Nov. 19, 2020.
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie speaks in support of nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, Nov. 19, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

With the simple majority gained in 2018’s election, lawmakers passed measures largely in consultation with the governor’s office in order to ensure their approval.

Now, with the threat to override any veto by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) and their members will have additional clout to negotiate bills and the state’s fiscal plan.

For New Yorkers, that means that stalled proposals including on key areas could start seeing some movement. Here are a few:

Housing

As New York enters the ninth month of the pandemic, many tenants are still not able to pay their rent or have run out of relief funds.

Housing advocates argue that the bellwether test for the Legislature’s new power will be whether both houses enact a universal moratorium on evictions.

The proposal by State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-The Bronx) is the “first and most urgent thing” the Legislature can do to “provide relief” to tenants and homeowners facing eviction and foreclosure, said Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All.

Myrie was part of a progressive new wave of senators elected in 2018. He defeated Jesse Hamilton, who had been part of a breakaway faction of Democrats who caucused with Republicans, propping up a GOP majority.

The Emergency Housing Stability and Displacement Prevention Act would prevent all eviction and foreclosure filings for commercial and residential tenants during the pandemic, plus an additional year after.

New York currently has a moratorium in place for some evictions.

Cuomo has issued several pandemic-period executive orders to protect tenants from evictions, the most recent extending a moratorium until January. For tenants with non-payment cases or eviction warrants filed before March 7 — when COVID-19 began ravaging the state — residents have to prove that the pandemic caused financial hardships.

Next on the list is an effort to “cancel” the months worth of back rent tenants owe.

The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020 sponsored by State Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan) would cancel the rents for tenants and mortgage payments of some homeowners as long as New York is in a state of emergency, plus an additional 90 days. Landlords would also be eligible for some assistance, via a relief fund.

Brooklyn-based State Sen. Julia Salazar.
Brooklyn-based State Sen. Julia Salazar.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Marijuana

For years, New York lawmakers have toyed with legalizing marijuana.

Last winter, Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed that they wanted to make marijuana legal in New York, but conversations over how revenue from the taxes levied on the drug would be spent sputtered.

In March, as discussions over the state budget began in earnest, COVID-19 hit New York, directing all focus toward pandemic response — and sweeping away pot plans.

Facing a multi-billion-dollar revenue shortfall prompted by the pandemic, some lawmakers are looking at marijuana legalization as a way to pump money into the state’s coffers. Voters in neighboring New Jersey recently approved a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana, adding pressure on New York to act.

“I think this year it is ripe because the state is going to be desperate for funding — even with (President elect Joe) Biden, even with stimulus, even with everything else — we’re still going to be desperate for funding. And it’s also the right policy,” Cuomo said earlier this month.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) and state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) propose to reinvest some of the revenue from marijuana into communities that have been disproportionately impacted by criminal anti-drug laws, as well as steer proceeds to drug treatment programs.

Taxes

The coronavirus outbreak has so far caused a $14.5 billion drop in state revenue this year.

The governor and Albany leaders have been banking on the incoming Biden administration to restart negotiations in Washington over a stimulus package that could deliver New York a much-needed cash infusion.

New York State Senate candidate Jabari Brisport (center) speaks at a June rally. He has since won election in Brooklyn.
New York State Senate candidate Jabari Brisport (center) speaks at a June rally. He has since won election in Brooklyn.
Jabari for State Senate/Facebook

But progressives say the state shouldn’t wait for the federal government to swoop in. Instead, they’re re-upping proposals to tax the ultra wealthy to shore up the state’s finances.

Among the proposals are efforts to add more brackets to income tax collection so those who earn more than $5 million pay increasingly more in taxes above that level. Another measure would tax assets as they increase in value for a select group of New Yorkers.

In a statement, the state director of the left-leaning New York Working Families Party, Sochie Nnaemeka, attributed the Senate’s supermajority to “running on bold, inclusive platforms to tax the rich and deliver a just recovery for all.”

Redistricting

Stewart-Cousins called her party’s new supermajority in the Senate “extraordinary” because the odds were stacked against Democrats based on how district lines had been drawn back in 2011, when Republicans controlled the chamber.

Republicans leading the once-a-decade redistricting process drew the lines drawn to maximize the chances of their party winning enough state Senate seats to remain in power, using tactics like fragmenting cities and blue areas, while concentrating reliable GOP voters in other districts.

“I started with a district that was a rectangle and after the gerrymandering that happened under Republicans, I have a district that is the smiling profile of an old man with a scraggly beard,” Stewart-Cousins said.

A deal struck by Cuomo and legislative leaders during redistricting nearly a decade ago amended the state constitution to move from ruling-party control of map-making to a 10-member commission with greater independence.

Yet the reforms don’t completely eradicate partisan advantages.

A provision in the commission grants Republicans some influence over the process, despite being in the minority in both chambers.

The intricate voting structure of the commission changes depending on the composition of the Legislature, making it difficult to reach agreement without ensuring minority-party support. But with a supermajority, the Senate won’t need Republican backing to change the district lines.

Stewart-Cousins said her conference won’t be following in her predecessors’ footsteps when it comes to drawing district lines.

“We will do the right thing. I believe that we will be able to draw up lines that are, you know, contiguous and rational, and still be able to achieve a Democratic majority,” she said.

SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS. SUPPORT NEW YORK.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. Please consider joining us as a member today.

GOT A TIP?

We’re here to listen. Email tips@thecity.nyc or visit our tips page for other ways to share.

Sign up for the newsletter Get THE CITY Scoop

Sign up and get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning