ALBANY – Democrats "squandered" their chance when they controlled the State Senate for two years, according to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has come under criticism from some in his party for not helping fellow Democrats retake the Senate this year.
A day after Republicans cut a deal with five breakaway Democrats to keep partial control of the Senate come January, Cuomo issued what he called a 10-point "litmus test" for the new Senate coalition to pass, ranging from a minimum wage hike to a sharp expansion of casino gambling to further protections for abortion rights, if the bipartisan experiment is to pass muster.
"I want what the people of this state want, [which] is a government body that operates, that conducts itself professionally. We've seen the alternative, and it was terrible," Cuomo said of the period when Democrats took back the Senate between 2009 and 2010.
Republicans last month did not win enough seats, on paper, to keep the majority, so their leader, Sen. Dean Skelos of Long Island, cut a deal Tuesday with Sen. Jeff Klein, head of the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, to create a coalition to run the 63-member chamber.
"You had people waiting decades for a Democratic Senate, decades, and this was going to be finally the explosion of progressive actions, because the Republicans had stymied it for so long," Cuomo told reporters, referring to the brief period of Democratic control after five decades of GOP dominance. Instead, he said, the dysfunction that followed was not "the golden moment of progressive politics" but "a lost moment."
The word of the day Wednesday in Albany was "progressive," as used repeatedly by Cuomo and Senate Democrats. The Senate Democrats shunned by Cuomo did not directly respond to his criticisms but said they are more aligned with his "progressive" agenda than the GOP.
Cuomo said he will reserve judgment on the coalition approach until he sees what items on his wish list get approved in next year's session. He said that on some issues opposed by Republicans, such as raising the minimum wage, the renegade Democratic group may want to work with the main Democratic conference to get bills passed.
"If this works well, God bless … If we have a dysfunctional period, that is not going to be a good thing, and I will do everything I can to change that," he warned.
Asked if Cuomo should be happy with the coalition deal, Skelos said in an interview with The Buffalo News, "If he wants a functioning Senate … he should be happy."
One thing the deal did change: Albany's famous three-men-in-a-room governing system – in which the governor and the two leaders of the Senate and Assembly make key decisions in secret – will include a fourth member: Klein, who will have a seat at those discussions, Skelos said.
The Republican leader said the Senate staff will not be growing dramatically, even with the unprecedented provision that will see Skelos and Klein trade the title of temporary president every two weeks during the session. He said Klein will be able to hire some additional staff but also will be relying on current top GOP staffers to help when he holds the top title.
Skelos said decision about who will hold that title at the end of March and the last two weeks of the legislative session in June – when most major decisions are made – have not yet been made. Officials later clarified that Skelos and Klein will still be making decisions jointly during those key periods no matter who holds the constitutionally required title of temporary president.
Decisions about committee assignments have not been made, but Skelos said there will not be major changes in top leadership posts, such as Senate Finance Committee chairman, now held by Republicans. He would not say what impact the deal will have on causes close to the renegade Democrats' heart, such as raising the minimum wage or legalizing medical marijuana.