Here Comes Another Wild, Crazy Year in Albany

How will the MTA get funded? Will Bill de Blasio get to control his public school system? Who gets led out in handcuffs next?

The New York State Capitol. (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

The New York State Capitol. (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine that 2016 can top 2015, when two legislative leaders, including the once-indomitable Sheldon Silver, were indicted on federal corruption charges and forced to resign their powerful perches. But even if things may be a bit more stable as new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and Senate Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, find their footing, plenty of outside forces threaten to rain chaos and confusion down on Albany.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the swaggering sheriff of the state capital, may have a few more indictments up his sleeve, especially with reports that he’s investigating Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s much-touted billion-dollar investment in Buffalo. Mr. Bharara strikes fear in the hearts of Albany lawmakers, making it harder than ever for power brokers to engage in the old horse-trading that helps the creaky state machinery run.

“It can’t help but have an effect. And some of it may be kind of meeting with lawyers before meeting with donors, which isn’t a bad thing,” said Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran an anti-corruption campaign challenging Mr. Cuomo for the Democratic nomination last year.

Mr. Bharara cast a pall over deal-making last year at a time when Mr. Cuomo, Mr. Heastie and Mr. Flanagan—Albany’s three men in a room—were desperately trying to conduct the state’s business up against deadlines and behind closed doors. That pall will remain in place this year and the business will be no less urgent and no less important: a proposed hike to the minimum wage, reaching a deal on the MTA capital plan that keeps the subways running, extending mayoral control and bringing home money for city schools, reforming Common Core and finding money for homeless issues are among the topics on the agenda. And that’s without mentioning the state budget, and the fact that the two of the three men in the room are still pretty new at this.

“The Senate has razor-thin margins. The Assembly is sort of a new Assembly in many ways. There are a lot of unknowns,” a Cuomo administration official told the Observer.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Perhaps at the top of the agenda, Mr. Cuomo wants to shepherd a $15 minimum wage through a GOP Senate that hates hiking the minimum wage—and also knows its slim majority is endangered by a swell of Democratic voters expected to turn out for the presidential election. How does he expect to make it happen? “Prayer,” the official said. “A lot of prayer.”

Liberals are excited the triangulating Mr. Cuomo is suddenly enthusiastic about one of their priorities, but fear he may trade a hike for something they hate, like slashing taxes on big businesses—and are just generally skeptical of his motives.

“Really for the first time we’re seeing consistent movement [from Cuomo] for some of the standard progressive issues that he had resisted,” said Bill Samuels, a liberal Democratic fundraiser and Cuomo critic. “Now, I’ve not seen this before from the governor. What does this tell me? 2016, we have an election with a Democrat at the top of the ticket, probably Hillary Clinton, who should do well in New York. Therefore, what to look for in my mind is whether Cuomo in 2016 decides we could win the State Senate and makes an effort he historically did not make in 2010, 2012 and 2014.”

And on an issue like the minimum wage, its overall popularity in polls may drive Mr. Cuomo and legislative leaders to take some kind of action.

“That’s never been a secret to how we’ve gotten things done,” the Cuomo official said. “You go out to communities, you go to localities, and you say here’s an agenda. And if people are behind it, right, elected officials usually follow suit.”

And Mr. Cuomo will have some support from the labor world. George Gresham, president of the politically powerful 1119 SEIU, said a minimum wage hike would help not just members of his union—including the fast-growing sector of home health care workers earning just $10 an hour—but 2.2 million workers across New York State.

“That’s not all Democrats, that’s Democrats and Republicans. That’s not all New York City, that’s statewide,” Mr. Gresham said. “So I think this is an interest that will have the attention of both houses of state government. And we know we can’t get this passed without working with the Senate and the Assembly.”

Mr. Gresham is a rarity in New York politics: he maintains close relationships with both the governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who last year witnessed most of his priorities (including a minimum wage hike Mr. Cuomo dismissed as out of hand) wither and die. Mr. de Blasio later placed the blame for that on Mr. Cuomo, whom he called “vindictive” and insisted had been behind the decision to award the mayor control of city schools for just a year—far less than the seven years former Mayor Michael Bloomberg got—forcing the issue to come up again this session.

The acidic relationship between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio, and whether it can be repaired and how it will affect those priorities, will be a top storyline to watch for next year. (Neither side of the dispute wanted to discuss it.)

“I don’t question either one of them on things that you read in the papers, but it’s clearly—the relationship could be improved,” Mr. Gresham said. “But I don’t think either one of them will allow that to get into the way of doing their proper responsibility to their constituents.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images) Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images

Among the areas the mayor and governor disagree is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $26.8 billion capital plan, with MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast—a Cuomo appointee—demanding the city cough up $2.5 billion for the MTA. That’s a major increase over the annual $100 million the city has historically kicked in to the MTA, and far more than the $657 million the de Blasio administration says it will pay to the authority. Mr. Cuomo has promised $8.3 billion for the MTA, but City Hall fears that much-needed cash for transportation maintenance and upgrades will be siphoned off for other projects, and argues tolls and fares mean the city already pays its fair share.

But who has the moral high ground here will be of little comfort to residents of the five boroughs. If the plan is unfunded, it leaves the MTA with just two options: cutting the budget or borrowing money. Cuts will mean putting projects on hold, like the next phase of the Second Avenue subway, and borrowing will mean raising fares.

“There’s already a pretty lively dialogue happening,” a de Blasio administration official told the Observer. “We care a lot about it, New Yorkers care a lot about it. I can’t make the predictions or sort of participate in the kind of parlor intrigue in how much of a fight it’s going to be—but it’s certainly going to be a priority.”

Mr. Cuomo’s administration, meanwhile, was quick to point out they had other infrastructure concerns, too—like upstate bridges. “I think the MTA piece is going to work itself out,” the Cuomo official said.

The MTA funding is actually a bit of leftover business: it was set to be decided last year. Also unfinished from that session is a final deal to extend the 421a tax credit, used to lure developers to build low-income housing. Mr. Cuomo cozied up to the building trades by demanding a deal include prevailing wage for workers; Mr. de Blasio said that would be too costly and instead focused on ways to require developers to build more units for the city’s poorest residents. Eventually Albany reached a “framework” for a deal—the real estate industry and the building trades will hammer out the final details in the next few months.

But the lingering question of mayoral control may prove tougher for Mr. de Blasio, and more emblematic of his problems in the state capital. Mr. Heastie failed to deliver the power in perpetuity over public schools that Mr. de Blasio sought, and insiders say there is little love for the mayor among senior members of his own party in either house of the State Legislature.

Republicans in the State Senate, of course, have every reason to hate Mr. de Blasio, and Mr. Flanagan, the Republican Senate leader, has already made it clear he intends to make the mayor run another gamut of humiliating interrogations in the capital if he wants to control the school system.

Mr. Golden, one of the few Republicans representing the city in the Senate, denied there was a political element to Senate Republicans’ reluctance to grant Mr. de Blasio indefinite authority over city schools.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing and spending taxpayer money wisely. So my guys have a right to be concerned how that money is being spent,” he said. “There are some questions that my conference would like to have answered, but I think the mayor is up to that.”

Mr. de Blasio’s office has said he’s willing to talk to anyone about mayoral control, presumably including Mr. Flanagan. But even the mayor’s usual allies on education are unwilling to back up his push to make it permanent. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers union, said his organization would only back a three- to six-year extension of the program and would seek to weaken the mayor’s influence while increasing the power of local community education councils.

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast. (Photo: Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast. (Photo: Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)

“We don’t support permanent mayoral control. We always believed it should be sunsetted,” Mr. Mulgrew said. “It doesn’t matter who the mayor is, whether we have a good relationship or a bad relationship. There should be checks and balances.”

One power in the State Senate, however, purports to be on Mr. de Blasio’s side on the issue. State Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein—head of the Independent Democratic Conference—told the Observer he would push to extend city home rule on schools indefinitely, with some reforms.

“The Republicans are in the majority in the Senate, and they want to do hearings, I was told, throughout this year on mayoral control—which I don’t think is a bad thing, you know, if we can make the law better. But I hope it’s just not a reason to delay the implementation of mayoral control,” he said. “I hope politics isn’t played and they make this mayor jump through too many hoops.”

Mr. Klein himself, however, is not known as a reliable Democratic ally. The five-member IDC joined with the Republicans to share control of the State Senate in 2012 despite a Democratic numerical majority. The IDC promised to abandon their Republican allies and side with the larger Democratic caucus if the party won a majority last year, but that did not come to pass.

Still, if there is a bright patch in Mr. de Blasio’s Albany calendar, it is next November. Senate Democrats are likely to snatch up several seats they lost last year and possibly make gains in Republican territory. Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, who chairs the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said he was prepared to rout the GOP on Election Day.

“We’re in the best shape financially we’ve been in in decades. We’ve got great candidate recruitment efforts going on this year, we’ve got a great coalition of organized labor, Democratic office holders around the state lining up with us, and presidential years have always been good for us,” he said. “We’re very excited.”

But as usual, the math is tricky. Besides the IDC, Democratic Brooklyn State Senator Simcha Felder has caucused with the Republicans since his election in 2012. But he signaled he might unite with his own party if they gain a majority again—and his vote alone currently makes up the margin of the one-seat GOP majority.

Mr. Gianaris said he expected Mr. Klein—and Mr. Felder—to follow through on past vows to realign with the larger Democratic conference.

“We’re going to hold them to that promise going forward, and we expect to have the numbers next time,” Mr. Gianaris said.

Mr. Klein, however, seemed unprepared to commit to any caucus but his own.

“You know, the only thing I can say at this point is that the Independent Democratic Conference will remain, you know, a third conference in the New York State Senate,” he said.

And why not? Mr. Klein’s status at the IDC has gotten him into the room for budget negotiations, the fourth man at a table historically set for three. And he’s argued that his caucus has brought stability and efficiency to the Senate—even if that wasn’t quite the case last year.

“We didn’t have the greatest year, there was a little instability. But at the end of the day, you know, the Republicans picked a new leader; the Assembly Democrats picked a new leader. And, you know, we have to move forward from there.”

Asked if he foresaw more instability, Mr. Klein answered simply—with a desire probably echoed by every one of his Albany colleagues.

“I hope not,” he said.

READ MORE from the Observer’s annual Albany issue: 

State of Confusion: Albany’s Top 40

Can You Hear Me Now? Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie Finally Talks

Here Comes Another Wild, Crazy Year in Albany