One Week Out: What's On Albany's Agenda?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Liz Benjamin, host of Capital Tonight, and Daily News Albany Bureau Chief Ken Lovett discussed what’s on the docket in Albany, one week before the end of the legislative session.

Gay Marriage

Among Governor Cuomo's top priorities this session has been legalizing gay marriage in the state—a tall order considering the failure of previous bills and a freshly minted Republican Senate in opposition. Democrats also haven't been able to get their own caucus to vote as a bloc on this issue; even if they could, as the minority party they'll still need to turn a few GOP Senators.

Liz Benjamin said that every Republican senator considered on the fence must fear being the "deciding factor vote."

It's clearly not going to pass without Republican assistance because there are only 30 Democrats, one of whom will never in a million years vote for gay marriage, and that's Ruben Diaz. There's going to be a Republican deciding vote no matter how you slice it, but I think they'd like it to be not 32 'yes' votes, but 33. That way there's a cushion, so nobody gets singled out as the specific person who made gay marriage happen.

Ken Lovett said there was another huge political risk for Republicans thinking about voting 'yes':

Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative party, who has threatened that the party throughout the state will not back anyone who supports gay marriage. The GOP has often needed both Republican and Conservative line votes to put them ahead. It's a major deal for a lot of Republicans who won by the slimmest of slim margins, and they want to keep the majority next year. If Long follows through on his threats, they could lose it.

Governor Cuomo has called a strategy session for gay marriage supporters in Albany this afternoon.

Ethics Reform

"Cleaning up Albany" is a perennial top priority for New York's Governor. While Cuomo will enter the final push for an ethics reform bill this week, critics, including the Daily News editorial page, say the legislation is too watered down to create meaningful change. For example, under proposed rules, eight members of a 14-member ethics commission must vote to open an investigation into a complaint made against a politician. The big problem with that? Any decision to investigate a complaint must be approved by two members of the same party in the same branch of government as the accused pol. Sound likely?

"You can get a 12-2 vote to investigate the governor, and it could go down because the governor's people voted against it," Lovett said. He also claimed that most of the foot-dragging on ethics reform, and a big reason that the legislation is as weak as it is, comes from the state Senate.

It was the legislature, particularly the Senate, protecting its own. The Senate was said to push for a lot of stipulations; lots of people who are lawyers didn't want to disclose all the clients that do business with the state that they represent.

Last year there was debate on the floor whether to put a moratorium on hydrofracking. George Winner, who is an attorney, got up and passionately spoke in favor of hydrofracking, calling it the future economic salvation of upstate New York. Turns out his firm has a lot of energy clients, something we never knew. Under this bill, it's questionable whether we'd still know it.

Insurance Exchanges

Cuomo is also eying an insurance exchange system for the state, which would make New York eligible for millions of dollars in federal grant money to implement the change. It's an idea that's popular with more liberal and progressive voters, but Liz Benjamin wondered if Cuomo and the rest of Albany might not already have enough on their plate over the next week without trying to add another really complex element to the mix.

I don't know that [Cuomo] will embrace this. I think it's too difficult for voters to understand; it's a very progressive position for him to be taking, but it's more easy for voters and progressives to understand that the governor is for gay marriage—that he's pushing gay marriage and that's how he's getting the left back into the fold—than insurance exchanges, and the nitty gritty of bill language for insurance exchanges. That's not going to help them.

There's a price for procrastination, though—so often the case in Albany. "If the state doesn't get its act together on this one, it's not going to be able to get federal cash," Benjamin said. "That's the bottom line."