A Column of News & Comment by Senator James L. Seward
And so it begins. Day one of the new Democrat majority in the New York State Senate began, in many ways, as expected. A new leader was elected (from just outside New York City) and immediately outlined the policies the Democrats would be pursuing in the coming year. This is how a change in majority works, and I take no issue with that. However, I was deeply concerned on several fronts.
I have consistently voted for a permanent property tax cap, and I was pleased to hear the new leader mention that as a priority. The problem was that no other upstate concerns were detailed, and that is a major disappointment. Economic development is lagging behind in many counties outside of the five boroughs of New York City, but that fact is being swept under the rug by the new leadership regime.
I have previously outlined New York’s population loss, and the news is filled with stories about upstate businesses closing their doors. We need to focus on policies that will cut taxes, eliminate burdensome government regulations, and lower the cost of doing business across the state. Those are the steps needed to create an environment conducive to job creation. My Republican colleagues and I have advanced a number of initiatives in recent years to address our state’s economic shortcomings. We will continue to stand up and speak out in favor of those proposals.
Another under the radar maneuver by the Democrat leaders may not make headlines, but it is just as alarming. New senate rules were adopted that will make it difficult for individual senators to properly represent their constituents. New York State is divided into 63 senate districts with each senator representing approximately 300,000 constituents. In the more rural districts, like mine, those districts can take up a lot of territory. The 51st Senate District is comprised of all or parts of nine counties and is roughly the geographic equivalent of the State of Connecticut. It takes resources to properly represent a district of that size and ensure that local needs are met.
Every senator is provided state funding for staff and other resources and in the past, the minority conference was guaranteed 30 percent of total staff resources. However, in the new senate rules, that guarantee was dropped. Again, while a change in leadership may mean a change in political ideology, it should not mean a reduction in state services, and representation, for the people of a particular senate district.
Another major concern with the new senate rules is the composition of senate committees, especially the Ethics and Internal Governance Committee. As advanced, the adopted rules would reconstitute the ethics panel to review legislation, but also to allow partisan investigations. Unlike the U.S. Congress and the New York State Assembly, this committee will be politically unbalanced, comprised of more Democrats than Republicans. This unprecedented change is profoundly dangerous to democracy in Albany. Politics should not enter into ethics investigations, but that is exactly what this change may allow.
In addition, Democrats have also sharply reduced the size of all committees. In some cases, there will be only one minority member on a committee. This is an unprecedented shift that will limit debate during committee meetings, where legislation is first reviewed, and stifle the voices of many. Before legislation reaches the senate floor for a full vote, it is vital that concerns are weighed and discussed in committee. Often times, problems with a bill can be sorted out and amendments suggested. A reduction in committee members endangers those deliberations.
The new senators who were sworn in on day one of the legislative session, along with others in the Democrat majority, spent their time on the campaign trail promoting ethics, transparency, and policies to better our ENTIRE state. If the start of the legislative session is any indication, they have already forgotten those righteous ideals. What, and whom, will they forget next?