The New York State Senate is changing. The Senate's Independent Democratic Conference, which had operated in a coalition with Republicans, is now dissolving and rejoining with mainline Democrats. This week, Grant Reeher talks with Sen. Dave Valesky (D-Oneida), a founding member of the IDC. They discuss the implications of this change, as well as the recently passed state budget.
Reeher: The reporting in the last few days is that the IDC has disbanded, and it’s rejoined the Democrats. Is that correct?
Valesky: That is correct. About a week ago, I guess it was now, the eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference, we have folded back into what many refer to as the mainline Democratic conference. And I think there are a number of reasons for that. But if I could share just what I think is the most prominent reason and really the priority of the effort? If we do back to the beginning of the IDC…way back in 2011…I think it was a very important step and for the last seven or so years, I think, was extremely effective. We were able to accomplish a number of progressive goals…We were able to push the majority Republicans in a more progressive fashion than would have otherwise happened. I think the real change, though…was really less about what has been going on in New York state and more what is going on in Washington. And the election of President Trump was really a change in many ways, and I think, specific to the state Senate, underscored the importance of Democratic unity and standing up to many federal policies that run, I think, counter to New Yorkers…It became apparent that Democratic unity in the New York state Senate…became more important than, really, it had ever been long before that.
Reeher: New York Republicans often are quite different in their policy positions from the more conservative wing of the Republican Party…Has that affected them in any way? And it doesn’t sound like that’s the issue. It’s more just a sense of Democrats really having to circle the wagons.
Valesky: That’s certainly my sense. The wagon circling, I think, is really sort of the preeminent reason. And you raise an interesting issue. We live in a state where we have an assembly that has been overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats for many, many years now. We have had a Democratic governor for 10 years now, and the Republicans [are] in the Senate…At the end of the day, we have split control of government, so there has to be compromises that are found. And those compromises have to balance the needs, certainly, of Democratic perspectives from the assembly and governor’s point of view and, in a sense, Republican perspectives for the majority Republican Senate.
Reeher: There’s another theory about this, and that is that the reunification is the result of recent reporting on IDC members getting leadership stipends that, at least on paper, were attached to different posts than those that were being held, or they were for positions that were not made public. And that includes your stipend for duties as vice chair of the Senate Health Committee and for a position that you held while the IDC was in existence—the senior assistant majority leader. Does that factor into the decision?
Valesky: I don’t think it does at all. In terms of the stipend question, I continue to serve as vice chair of the Health Committee. I do not receive additional compensation for that. [I] did at one point in time. The comptroller has determined that those won’t be moving forward. I have received a stipend for a leadership position in the Senate moving forward as a senior member of the Senate. I think the one thing that is important to underscore through all of that, however, is that also as part of the budget, a commission has been established to look at the whole issue of legislative pay. The base pay of the legislature has been flat for 20 years now. And the commission will be charged with looking at things such as not only base pay of legislators, but also additional payments for leadership positions—those of us who have additional responsibilities outside of our own district…I think the time is right for a top-to-bottom review of all compensation issues in the legislature, and that’s going to happen as a result of the commission that has just been established.
Reeher: Let’s talk about the state budget. It just passed on time. I think it was a day early, in fact. What would you regard as the most important highlights of the contents of the budget?
Valesky: Certainly, protecting New Yorkers from many of the negative impacts of the federal tax changes…Education is always a critical, critical issue…In a tough budget in terms of the fiscal situation that the state finds itself in, we were able to raise state aid for education by about a billion dollars while keeping within our self-imposed 2 percent spending cap…Whether it’s urban education, suburban education [or] rural education, I think we were able to have a very positive budget there. From an environmental perspective,…when we get up in the morning and we go in and turn our faucet on, how many of us really worry about whether or not our drinking water is safe and secure? My guess is probably not many of us. But as a state senator, I think about that, and I think about it in a number of ways…This year, we were able to appropriate $65 million that will be used to directly combat these algal blooms that have developed on a number of upstate lakes…Many other issues, just one I’ll single out. The opioid crisis is real, and it’s severe. All across New York state, we were able to increase residential treatment beds [and] direct more resources toward treatment for opioid and for heroin abuse…The state budget, I think, has a number of positive things for central New Yorkers and all New Yorkers, and I was pleased to have supported that this year.
Reeher: I think, long term, it’s pretty clear that the Senate is going to turn Democratic in the next couple election cycles. If you just look at the state…it looks like the state’s just getting bluer. So, first of all, do you think that assessment is correct? And then if it is, once we do have a fairly reliably Democratic state Senate, what are going to be the most significant new kinds of policy changes that one might expect to come from a state that has complete Democratic control with the culture New York state has?
Valesky: Maybe I’ll take them in reverse order, if I could, because some of those issues are many of the issues that progressives and progressive organizations have talked about…There are voting reforms that have long been talked about in the state of New York. Early voting [and] automatic voter registration are issues that are perhaps more likely to be considered if in fact there’s a change in control down the road in terms of the state Senate. The question of legalization of marijuana, certainly, would be one, and a whole host of others. So there will be those issues that, in many cases…may have a greater likelihood that they would be approved…I would just step back for a minute, however. You’re right; from a data perspective, New York state, as a blue state…seems to be getting bluer and bluer if you’re using the measurement…[of] registered voters. So Democrats continue to have a greater advantage in terms of voter registration advantage all across the state of New York. I think it would be a mistake, though, to assume that that advantage necessarily means a change or eventual change in party control either of the legislature or the governor’s office. What I say about that is, I have found in my time that elections in the legislature…are individual races between one candidate and another candidate. Voters, I find, very rarely go into the polling place and say, “I’m going to vote for the Democrat in this race because I want the Democrats to control the Senate.”…Most voters look at the two candidates—the Democrat and the Republican—which candidate better serves their needs? Which candidate speaks to the issues that they believe are important? And that’s the way that they decide to vote. So, I’ve heard that argument before, and that very well may be the case if you look at the data points that are out there. But I just caution and would say that it’s important to remember that, in the case of state Senate elections, we have elections every two years, and it’s really the voters’ choice as to what senators are sent to Albany. And the majorities will be formed from that point.