Office of the Governor

Ultimately, the situation in the state Senate could, depending on how November turns out, continue to provide Gov. Cuomo with cover for his desired centrist positions.

Cynthia Nixon’s concession speech following last month’s gubernatorial primary was remarkable in part for how little it conceded. Instead, the losing candidate declared victory — in getting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support recreational marijuana legalization, untying teacher evaluations from student test scores, increasing funding for NYCHA, restoring voting rights to paroled felons, and more.

“We have to hold the governor accountable for the commitments he has made over the last six months, but these are real victories,” declared Nixon. “Some people have called this the Cynthia Effect. That’s not what I call it. I call it what happens when we hold our leaders accountable.”

But while Cuomo’s progressive shift in rhetoric — whether spurred by Nixon or not — is obvious, what happens next is not. Voting rights for paroled felons are a done deal, meaning 35,000 people can reward Cuomo with their newly restored votes in November. But huge decisions remain to be made on numerous policy matters that were key to the gubernatorial primary race, and it bears watching whether Cuomo will carry through on his rhetoric.

Here’s a rundown of some of the most significant issues yet to be decided, and which tea leaves to read to prophecy the governor’s future actions on them.

Abortion rights

What had been somewhat of a back-burner issue — the fact that although New York was the first state to legalize abortion back in 1970, it never actually codified all the protections included in Roe v. Wade three years later — leaped to prominence this summer with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and his eventual replacement with harder-right ideologue Brett Kavanaugh. The proposed solution: The Reproductive Health Act, which would allow for abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the fetus would not survive after birth, or if the life or health of the mother was at stake, as is allowed under Roe — while also moving abortion regulation from the penal code, where it now resides, to the health code.

The RHA, as its advocates note, is needed not just to safeguard against possible future assaults on reproductive rights, but to ensure abortion access to New Yorkers right now. Brooklynite Erika Christensen made headlines when she RHAVote campaign (and co-proprietor of the mock abortion travel agency that popped up last weekend to promote the effort). “The law that we have on the books is already problematic — people are already facing denials or delays of care because of it, like our family.”

Cuomo, who previously drew criticism for not prioritizing the RHA, is now pledging to “push to codify Roe v. Wade and decriminalize abortion in New York within the first 30 days of the new legislative session,” according to gubernatorial spokesperson Tyrone Stevens. But the fate of the RHA may end up having less to do with what happens in the governor’s office than the November election returns for the state Senate, which has been the stumbling block for passing the bill.

“Really, it’s all about a Democratic majority,” says state Sen. Liz Krueger, the bill’s primary Senate sponsor. “If we have a Democratic majority in January, and Andrea Stewart-Cousins is the majority leader, she’ll bring it to the floor for a vote.”

And if there’s a Democratic majority, it may look very different from the last time the party had control of the Senate in 2009, when it still included such abortion-phobic legislators as Rubén Díaz Sr. (who repeatedly compared abortion to the Holocaust) and George Onorato (who cited his Catholic upbringing for his opposition to both abortion rights and same-sex marriage). The potential incoming Albany class, notes Marschall, includes candidates like Alexandra Biaggi in the Bronx, Andrew Gounardes in Brooklyn, and Anna Kaplan and James Gaughran in Long Island, all of whom are strongly supportive of the RHA. (Simcha Felder, a nominal Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, has voted against the bill in the past.)

Of the 13 state Senate seats considered likely up for grabs, the Democrats only need to take four to have a pro-choice majority in the Senate. This means the fate of abortion rights in New York could come down to whether Long Island Republicans Carl Marcellino and Elaine Phillips can fight off challenges from Democrats Gaughran and Kaplan, and Democratic incumbent John Brooks can hold off Republican Jeff Pravato — which means it could well depend on whether the Kavanaugh hearings end up provoking a blue wave or a red backlash.

Regardless, says Marschall, he’d love to see Cuomo use his bully pulpit to do more to elucidate the problem, beyond general lip service to women’s rights. “What we would like to see from Cuomo is see him talk about it now, and use the word ‘abortion,'” he says. “Part of the stigma around abortion comes from people like him in positions of power treating it like a stigmatized issue.”

Marijuana legalization

As recently as last year, Cuomo called marijuana a gateway drug and declared himself “unconvinced” that it should be legalized for recreational use. While the governor hasn’t yet done a complete 180 on the issue — his office says he has now “concluded that the positive effects of regulating an adult marijuana market in New York outweigh the potential negative impacts” — he has created one of his favorite bureaucratic structures, an Albany-led working group, to develop a legalization plan to take to the legislature, after a 15-city “listening tour” that is currently underway.

Melissa Moore, Deputy State Director for New York of the Drug Policy Alliance, says it’s still unclear what the working group will come up with, but that legalization advocates hope their plan will include at minimum clearing old low-level misdemeanor arrest records for marijuana, as well as coming up with a system for staving off the development of a local marijuana industry where an “oligopoly” controls marijuana sales while excluding the small sellers, mostly poor and people of color, who are hoping to finally be able to go legit under legalization.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act currently under consideration in the legislature, Moore says, has provisions to address these issues. “There is a microlicense, for example, that would allow folks to grow in small amounts, process it themselves, and be a distributor for their own homegrown products — similar to what we’ve seen with microbeer and craft wines,” she says.

Krueger, who is also Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, says she’s encouraged that the governor’s working group has reached out to indicate that it will use her bill as a starting point for discussions, particularly on allowing small operators and expunging criminal records. She also hopes that the state won’t see marijuana tax revenue as too much of a potential cash cow, which could price out smaller sellers: “One important lesson from other states is you need to keep legal affordable, or the illegal market continues. If we overprice marijuana through too heavy taxation, they keep going because they’ve got the cheaper product in the back alley.”

Where all of the state Senate stand on the issue isn’t yet clear — the legalization bill wasn’t brought up for a vote last session as the GOP formed an informidable “no” bloc. And what form an eventual proposal from the working group will take is likely to remain under wraps at least through the end of the year. “If the governor rolls it out in the State of the State, we won’t know anything until he does that,” says Krueger.

Single payer health care

Health care was one of the most contentious points in the gubernatorial campaign, with Nixon backing the creation of a state single-payer plan, while Cuomo countered that any “Medicare For All” plan would need to happen at the federal level. The furthest the governor agreed to go was to “look at” the issue with the legislature, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. (Stevens tells City Limits that the governor “will consider all ideas that are on the table that will strengthen coverage options, reduce costs, and ensure healthcare is treated as a right for all and not a privilege for a few.”)

The New York Health Act, which would replace all health insurance plans in the state with single-payer, government-run coverage, has been around in one form or another since 1992. State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried has been its prime sponsor for that entire time, and he’s as optimistic as he’s ever been that this could be the legislation’s year: “Whatever happens on November 6, we are farther along than we’ve ever been.”

The NYHA is — stop us if you’ve heard this before — currently one vote short of passage in the Senate, thanks to Felder. So like the abortion bill, the fate of single-payer too will depend largely on those key Long Island races.

If the Democrats do retake the Senate, that would put Cuomo in an awkward position, as he clearly neither wants to raise taxes — even if a RAND Corporation report last summer determined that most New Yorkers would save even more in health-care costs — nor anger the insurance lobby. Yet being the governor who killed single-payer health care wouldn’t do him wonders with the increasingly progressive national Democratic base if he still has hopes for an eventual presidential run.

One possibility for the governor would be to quietly lobby Democratic legislators to oppose the bill, or at least hold off on backing it, in an attempt to peel off enough support to keep it from coming to a floor vote. Another would be to seek to position himself as the middle ground, as he successfully did in passing a watered-down version of the $15-an-hour minimum wage in 2015.

While the NYHA includes specific funding and tax benchmarks, that RAND report — which worried that high-income New Yorkers could leave the state if their taxes go up, though most historical evidence shows that this is an idle threat — does leave open the possibility for haggling over the details. Cuomo could also seek to hold off on any plan until Washington promises to provide waivers for New York state to operate a single-payer plan, something that the Trump administration has indicated it won’t do.

“I’m convinced that we can respond to whatever concerns [the governor] may have,” Gottfried tells City Limits. And as for the federal waivers, he isn’t concerned just yet: “If a bill becomes law in 2019, it’s probably not going to be ready to be implemented before January 20, 2021” — by which time, he hopes, the state will be negotiating with a different administration for waivers.

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Ultimately, the situation in the state Senate could, depending on how November turns out, continue to provide Cuomo with cover for his desired centrist positions: If it remains Republican-controlled, he can shrug his shoulders and blame the GOP, while if the Democrats take over, he can use his position as governor to get legislation rewritten to suit his demands, then take credit for its passage anyway, as he did with the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Where Cuomo’s actions, or lack thereof, could be even more important, meanwhile, are in areas where the Democratic-Republican divide is less clearly staked out. For example, the state’s laws governing New York City rent regulation will sunset again in 2019, meaning it’ll be up to the state to determine what the rent landscape looks like going forward — something that’s even more likely to run afoul of the governor’s biggest donors.

“If we have a Democratic Senate and Assembly, we better make progress on affordable housing issues,” says Krueger, who notes that last month the New York Times editorial board for the first time in recent memory came out in favor of rolling back landlord-friendly rent laws. “Do I know where the governor really is? No, I don’t, and that worries me. But that’s where he needs to be.”

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