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State Senate likely to maintain status quo

If the numbers hold, Republicans are poised to remain in control of the State Senate, and even pick up a seat. The news has reassured business groups but dismayed reform advocates.

If the election results hold, Republicans will have the numerical majority when the Senate reconvenes in January. That means many of the same issues that were gridlocked in the legislature in the past are likely to remain so, including the Dream Act, which would provide college aid to children of undocumented immigrants, abortion rights measures, and ending the incarceration of 16 and 17 year olds in adult prisons.

But some business leaders say the status quo could be a good thing, when it comes to issues like keeping the 2% property  tax cap intact, and continuing  voluntary state spending limits that Cuomo has followed in conjunction with the Senate GOP.

Ken Pokalsky, with the State’s Business Council, says Republicans in the Senate have also been more on track with policies that business believe help them thrive and create jobs.

“We have always seen the Senate Republican Majority’s agenda more in line with ours and vice versa,” Pokalsky said.

He says a Senate controlled by Democrats might have voted more like the State Assembly, a long time Democratic bastion. He says last year, Assembly Democrats wanted to increase income taxes on some taxpayers , but ultimately were persuaded by the Senate Republicans and Governor Cuomo to cut taxes instead.

The Business Council hopes the Senate GOP will push reform of the state’s workers compensation system, which he says is expensive to businesses, as well as tax reform for small businesses.

A Republican led Senate also likely means a continued stalemate on some ethics reform proposals. They include closing a loophole that allows donors to skirt campaign funding limits by forming multiple Limited Liability Companies, as well as the public financing of campaigns. Republicans have said they are philosophically opposed to those items. Pokalsky  says closing the LLC loophole would give an unfair advantage to unions, who would not have limits on their contributions to candidates.

“Quite frankly, they tend to have the singular or overwhelming effect of forcing the private sector out of political advocacy,” Pokalsky said.

He says one way to limit money in state legislative races is to extend the current two year terms to four year terms.

It’s also now unlikely that a measure to limit lawmakers’ outside income earnings will pass. Both former leaders of the legislature face prison time for illegally manipulating their outside incomes for person gain.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, which supports many of the measures opposed by Senate Republicans, says there are other reforms that can be achieved with a GOP Senate, and he says a corruption scandal involving Republicans in the State Senate stronghold of Long Island could spur them to action in the new session.

The state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics is viewed by critics as weak, and controlled by Governor Cuomo, and Horner says it could be fixed.

“We’re hoping that the Senate Republicans, who pride themselves as being law and order candidates, will look at the policing aspect of state government as an area where reforms are needed,” Horner said.

Prosecutions and convictions for corruption have come from the federal government, like US Attorney Preet Bharara, who oversaw the conviction of the former legislative leaders and who has issued criminal complaints against nine people involved in Governor Cuomo’s economic development projects.  

Horner says both Republicans and Democrats do support ending pensions for lawmakers convicted of felonies, and they will have an opportunity to take a final vote on that measure in 2017.

Democrats are not ready yet, though, to concede the Senate to the GOP. They say at least two races are very close, and there will likely be a count of paper ballots before the victor is decided.

In one of those contests, incumbent GOP Senator Michael Venditto is just 33 votes ahead of his Democratic challenger. Venditto’s father, a prominent Long Island Republican, has been indicted on corruption charges.

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.