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Senate controlled by Democrats might pass long-stalled issues

There’s a greater chance than ever that the state Senate could be dominated by Democrats after the Nov. 8 election, meaning many issues stalled in the Republican-led Senate for years would have a possibility of passing.

Campaign finance reform, the Dream Act — which offers college tuition support to the children of undocumented immigrants — and more money for underperforming schools are just a few items that might be approved under a Senate controlled by Democrats. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is betting on that happening, and he’s been more active this election cycle in bolstering Democratic candidates. He spoke at a rally for incumbent Sen. George Latimer in Westchester on Oct. 30.

He said at the top of his agenda will be ethics changes to respond to a string of corruption scandals. They have so far been resisted by the Republicans who lead the Senate.

“We have one more big piece that we have to do,” Cuomo said. “And that is ethics reform in Albany.”

The governor most recently has been pushing for limits to lawmakers’ outside income. Both former leaders of the Legislature are facing jail time for illegally monetizing their positions as legislators for personal gain.

Groups that have long supported ethics reforms say Senate Democrats would likely be better on the issue.

Jessica Wisneski is with the group Citizen Action, which is pushing for campaign finance reforms. The reforms include closing a loophole that allows donors to form limited liability companies and bypass rules that set caps on donations to candidates.

“There’s never a guarantee that you can get anything in Albany,” Wisneski said. “But the likelihood that things will move forward on campaign finance reform is much greater under the Democrats.”

Cuomo has said in the past that he backs public financing of campaigns, but has not pushed as actively for it as he has for other issues, like raising the minimum wage.

Wisneski, whose group supports public campaign financing, said with Democrats in charge of the Senate, it’s more likely that they will respond to what she said is increasing voter demands to get big money out of politics. She said the popularity of the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders — who said his average campaign donation was $27 — is evidence of that.

“The public at large is very ready for a deep change of course,” she said.

Wisneski said long-stalled criminal justice reforms also could move under a Democratic Senate. She said New York is one of the only states to still sentence 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of felonies to adult prisons.

“Raise the age has bipartisan support from DAs and local law enforcement, but it’s been blocked for years,” Wisneski said.

Cuomo, while pushing progressive social issues, also has been a fiscal conservative during his tenure in office. And he’s relied on Republicans in the Senate to back a property tax cap and a voluntary limit on state spending growth to 2 percent per year.

Democrats traditionally have a reputation of being more open to raising taxes than do Republicans. Cuomo has been warning gatherings of Democratic candidates and their supporters that they, too, should be careful about spending increases or raising taxes.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.