The State Legislature shifts left; a major election contest moves to court

COVID-related activities and budget concerns during the past year drew attention away from the New York State Legislature.  Various investigations of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s activities in the past several months have left him in a weakened political position.  In 2021, however, the Legislature has once again become actively engaged in state finances and policies.  The new involvement has seen the Legislature shift its politics leftward.

This is not a sudden development, but the movement has been hastened since 2019 when Democrats took real control of the State Senate; they held that power briefly more than a decade ago and managed to bungle the situation pretty badly.  The 2020 legislative elections solidified the hold of the party on the upper house of the Legislature.

The State Assembly has been firmly in the control of Democrats for more than four decades, but for most of the past eighty years or so Republicans were able to hold on to the Senate with the help of some gerrymandered districts and by over time adding three seats to the house.  Long-time Republican senators, several in their eighties, helped maintain Republican control before some of them either relinquished their seats or passed away.

Despite those obstacles Democrats managed to win a majority of the Senate, although for a while it was in name only as a block of up to eight independent Democratic senators formed a third base of power in that body.  Challenges to those senators ultimately resulted in the election of new senators who aligned with other members to form a solid Democratic majority.

As long as there was a Republican controlled Senate, state spending, taxes and legislation were moderated, although for political convenience it was not unusual for one or more Republicans to support Democratic programs from time to time.  In the 12 years when Republican George Pataki was governor there was an added check on Democratic initiatives.  On January 1, 2019, however, with a Democratic governor and the party in charge of both houses of the Legislature, the moderating effect of Senate Republicans disappeared.

When the pandemic became the state and nation’s major focus in March 2020, the Legislature was in the process of finishing its work on the 2020-2021 budget.  The shift to zoom meetings and the need for quick executive action left legislators in a diminished role – a role they agreed to.  They basically punted on the budget and surrendered control of most policy decisions to Governor Cuomo.  Cuomo, who has never been shy about acquiring and using power, for a year ran the state without most of the normal controls on the powers of a governor.

2021, however, is different, and in the most consequential ways.  The Cuomo investigations were like Toto pulling away the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.  Suddenly the Dorothy’s, scarecrows, tin men, and cowardly lions had the wisdom, heart and courage to take on the governor.

On top of this there were substantial financial developments.  President Joe Biden and Congress approved the American Rescue Plan, which among other things includes $350 billion in assistance for state and local governments.  The funds generally must be for COVID-related expenses and are not automatically transferred.  New York State may receive up to $12.5 billion.

In addition, reports from State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli indicate that the loss of revenues that the state was expecting due to the pandemic has turned out to be less than anticipated.

All this has left many state legislators anxious to provide additional funding to existing programs or to start new ones with newly added resources.  The Legislature also added $4.3 billion in increased or new taxes to the money pot.

When Governor Hugh Carey came into office in 1975 he inherited a financial mess and a collapsing New York City.  He set out to fix the problems by telling the Legislature and the public that the days of wine and roses were over. 

In 2021 the state and local governments are working their way through the financial problems that followed from the pandemic.  We have a State Legislature where many of the members are anxious to turn on the financial spigots.  Some of the legislators who identify as Socialist Democrats have really grand, multi-billion dollar spending plans.  Will financial moderation and restraint have any influence on state programs, or will some future governor once again need to steer the state back to reality?

The county comptroller’s race moves to court

Previous posts have highlighted major primaries in the offing for mayor of Buffalo, Erie County sheriff, and county comptroller.  In the latter race, activity has for the moment moved to State Supreme Court.

Democratic endorsed candidate for comptroller, Kevin Hardwick, had about 10,000 signatures submitted on his nominating petitions.  Challenger Hormoz Mansouri filed petitions with 1,657 signatures.  In 2021, due to COVID issues, countywide candidates only needed 600 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.  The Board of Elections certified 972 valid signatures, which would be enough to qualify Mansouri for the primary ballot.

It is hardly unusual for a political party to challenge the petitions of a candidate they are not supporting.  Mansouri’s petitions are being challenged.  The legal process concerning petitions involves a petition objector filing general objections to the opponent’s petitions and then following up with specific objections, going line by line through the petitions to determine if signatures are legitimate.

The Democratic Party’s objections allege that 1,581 of Mansouri’s signatures are invalid, leaving just 76 valid signatures.  Eleven different types of objections are raised about the signatures, the most significant of which may entail such things as signatures of persons who are not enrolled as a Democratic Party member (854 such objections).  Many questions are raised concerning the addresses provided by some signers. 

The objector to the Mansouri petitions, Lisa Saunders, has gone to court to have his petitions thrown out.  Included in the court filings are affidavits of some individuals whose names appear on the petitions who say that they did not sign the petition.

Mansouri’s lawyer, Jeffrey Bochiechio, has responded to the court action, providing the campaign’s answers to the objections that have been raised.

The court case has been assigned to State Supreme Court Justice Dennis Ward, who earlier in his career was Secretary of the Erie County Democratic Committee and then the Democratic member of the Erie County Board of Elections.  Mansouri has raised objections to the assignment of the case to Justice Ward and asked him to recuse himself because of his associations with the Democratic Party.  Ward has declined to do so.

The court case is next scheduled for a hearing on April 27th which will be just 57 days before Primary Day on June 22. Whether or not there is a Democratic primary for county comptroller will be decided by the courts.