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Legislature takes lead over governor, at least for now

The New York State Legislature has been more active during the first few days of the session than it has in many years.

On Monday, both houses of the Legislature got together and approved matching bills to expand voting in the state beyond just Election Day to 11 full days.

On Tuesday, they extended rights in employment and housing to transgender New Yorkers. The bills are now being sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign or veto.

According to the textbooks, that’s the way government is supposed to work: The Legislature writes and passes bills and the governor decides whether to approve them.

But in Albany, that system has been subverted for decades, as the governor has taken the lead role in most major items.

During Cuomo’s first two terms in office, when the Senate and Assembly were led by different parties, the governor had more power to set the agenda. He included numerous policy items in his budget that were not necessarily related to the spending plan. And he used private meetings restricted to majority party legislative leaders to finalize agreements that were often hastily voted on by rank-and-file members late at night.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government reform organization, has been watching events in Albany for decades. He said now that both houses are led by Democrats, senators and Assembly members are able to act on bills that in some cases have been in print for years — but did not have enough votes in the Republican-led Senate to pass.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a unified, one-political-party government in a long time,” Horner said. “The Democrats are singing from the same song sheet and going first. Typically it’s the governor who leads the parade, and often through the budget.”

Cuomo continued the practice of putting unrelated policy items into his budget plan when he released it on Tuesday. He advocated for stricter gun control laws, a measure known as the Child Victims Act that allows victims of childhood sexual abuse their day in court and more election reforms.

“Why not make Election Day a holiday?” Cuomo said. “And give them the time to come out and actually vote.”

Cuomo first broached the idea of an Election Day holiday in his inaugural address on Jan. 1.

But the newly empowered Democrats in the Legislature are showing some independence from the governor.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins was asked why the governor’s proposal to make Election Day a state holiday was not part of the Legislature’s voter expansion package. Stewart-Cousins said lawmakers want to act first to “clear a backlog” of bills that already have been more thoroughly examined.

“We are a deliberative body, and with new proposals that come in, we need to be able to vet them,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who is also a Democrat, said the governor may no longer need to put so many unrelated policy issues into the budget.

“To be fair, there were times when I was happy that he did,” Heastie said. “Because I knew if they were standalone items, the Senate Republicans would probably never have done them.”

He said it’s better now, though, to take the issues one by one.

“The Assembly and Senate, if we come to agreement on items, we’ll continue to pass them,” Heastie said. “And negotiate with the governor on the budget as well.”

Even though one party is now in charge in the governor’s office and the Legislature, there are signs of some competition between the two. During the governor’s inaugural address, Heastie pointed out on Twitter that many of Cuomo’s proposals already have been approved in the Assembly.

And the governor has upped the stakes on some issues that were previously agreed upon among Democrats. After the Legislature announced plans to pass bills on Jan. 22 codifying the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into law, Cuomo said in his budget message that he’d like to go one step further and establish the abortion rights into the state’s constitution.

NYPIRG’s Horner said for supporters of those issues, the rivalry can only be a benefit.

“The fact that the Legislature and the governor’s office may be looking to one-up each other is probably a good thing for the public,” Horner said.

He said the state budget, with all of the decisions about spending and taxes, will be the real test of whether old patterns are broken at the Capitol.

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.