From education funding to water pipes, plenty to talk about

By Rick Karlin

Despite a 2-to-1 enrollment deficit, but buoyed perhaps by Donald Trump‘s election as president, New York Republicans are on track to hold at least 31 of 63 seats in the state Senate. It would once again give them control of the chamber if Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder continues to vote with them.

And with as many as 33 seats likely to go their way once the final counts are in, the Republicans could enjoy an even greater majority in the 2017 legislative session.

That suggests the coming session could provide echoes of 2016, when Republicans controlled the Senate as well.

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But there will likely be differences, dictated by factors like the 2017 mayoralty in New York City, and even the impact that a Trump presidency may have on the state.

One change comes with the continued growth of the Independent Democratic Conference. The IDC, has since its formation by Bronx Sen. Jeff Klein in 2011, played a pivotal role by joining with Republicans to assure them of a working majority and that’s unlikely to change this year.

The IDC has grown from four to seven members and they’ve established themselves as full participants in the Senate.

“The IDC is not just a reality but it’s a functioning reality,” observed Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman and now a senior fellow at the Demos think tank.

Most believe the IDC will stay with the Republicans this year. And that will likely be OK with the governor, since it makes it easier for him to enact fiscally conservative policies that he wants.

“It works for him,” one observer said of Cuomo and the IDC/Republican alliance.

“New Yorkers want Democrats and Republicans to work together to get results, and we expect to continue to partner with Senator Klein and the members of his Independent Democratic Conference,” Republican Senate spokesman Scott Reifadded in an email.

One Democratic executive the Republicans don’t get along with, though, is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The GOP has clashed with him since he tried, unsuccessfully, to get Democrats elected to the Senate in 2014. And with this year’s 2017 mayoral elections in New York City, Republicans will probably avoid doing him any favors. Due to state laws, many initiatives as well as funding that city leaders desire has to go through the Legislature.

Here are some other things to watch for during this coming session.

Tax or regulatory relief for business groups, who are generally are more aligned with Senate Republicans than Democrats in either house.

They’ll likely be reminding lawmakers that last year brought the start of a $15-an-hour minimum wage and paid family leave.

“Those have a real impact on employers and growth and we would like to see the Legislature and governor recognize that,” Zack Hutchins, spokesman for the state Business Council, said.

Education. The state teachers’ union, New York State United Teachers, hopes to be on a better footing with GOP lawmakers, at least compared with 2014 when they, with de Blasio, worked on behalf of many Democrats.

NYSUT’s Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta noted that the fight over standardized testing linked to teacher evaluations is on hold thanks to a four-year moratorium.

That leaves them to focus on getting more money for education. Pallotta pointed out that court rulings in the more than decade-old Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit still haven’t been fully met for funding New York City schools. “We’ve really got to put the resources in the schools,” said Pallotta.

On the other side, groups like StudentsFirstNY, which supports more charters and a long-sought tuition tax credit for parochial and private schools, will continue to push ahead, although the credit will almost surely be blocked again in the Democratic Assembly which has close ties to teachers’ unions.

“StudentsFirstNY looks forward to continuing to work with the bipartisan leadership on behalf of all students in New York state,” said Jenny Sedlis, their executive director.

Environment. Overall, environmentalists hope they can reach more common ground with Republicans, especially following the water pollution problems with possible carcinogens PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) in the last year.

When people worry that their water is contaminated, the fallout crosses party lines, noted Peter Iwanowicz, executive director at Environmental Advocates.

“Everybody got a real sense of the challenges facing the state in providing drinking water,” Iwanowicz said, referring to worries about PFOA and PFOS that have turned up in water supplies for Hoosick Falls and Newburgh.

Infrastructure. Recent water main breaks and even sinkholes in upstate cities including Albany and Troy illustrate what both environmentalists and business groups such as Associated General Contractors say is the need for infrastructure upgrades.

“The hot issue this year is going to be about environmental infrastructure,” said Elmendorf. “All over the state, from Albany to Buffalo, stuff is falling apart. That’s going to be a real area of focus.”

The Trump effect. This is still a wild card, but Senate Republicans may find themselves having to oppose the new president if he takes actions that are unpopular in New York, such as funding cuts, aggressive deportations of undocumented immigrants, or attacks on organized labor.

“The Trump presidency will challenge the Legislature in really direct and forceful ways,” predicted Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, a labor-backed organization.

Closing the LLC loophole, which allows limited liability corporations to basically give unrestricted amounts of money to political campaigns and do so in relative privacy.

Republicans have steadfastly opposed this, saying it would infringe on free speech rights while opponents say it has brought undue amounts of money into the political process and opens the door for influence-peddling.

While there’s nothing to indicate that Republicans are changing their view, advocates say they will keep pushing.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, points to the recent presidential race in which both Clinton and Trump were critical of how money influences politics.

”Both candidates talked about the extraordinary damaging impact on money in politics,” she said.

rkarlin@timesunion.com 518-454-5758 @RickKarlinTU