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Senate GOP Leader dampens expectations on progressive bills

New York state Senate Republicans dampened expectations that their new governing coalition would move quickly on progressive issues championed by Democrats, including a minimum wage increase and public financing of campaigns.

Senator Dean Skelos, leader of the Senate GOP, met privately with his members to discuss the new governing coalition formed with the five member Independent Democratic Conference.

IDC Leader Senator Jeff Klein has said he intends to press for some key traditionally Democratic issues next session, including raising the minimum wage and public financing of campaigns.  

But Skelos expressed some reservations. Skelos says while he wants transparency in any campaign finance reform legislation, he’s skeptical of a public campaign finance system based on New York City’s model, that he says would cost too much money.

“My concern is that when we’re dealing with deficits, you’d have potentially $200 million in taxpayer dollars going to be spent on campaign financing,” Skelos said.

Skelos was also uncertain about the future of a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage.  The Senate Republican leader, who previously called the measure a  “job killer,” was asked whether he still opposed the minimum wage hike.

“I’m not prepared to give an answer to that yet,” Skelos said.  

Governor Andrew Cuomo has released what he calls a “litmus test” of issues that he wants the Senate to achieve, including a minimum wage hike, campaign finance reform, expanding casino gambling and preserving the property tax cap.

“The governor has the right to point out what’s a priority to him,” Skelos said. “We have our priorities.”

Skelos says no decisions have been made yet about whether any specific bill will come to the floor in the new session, but he says he expects to have ample discussion of the issues with the Republicans’ new Independent Democratic Conference partners. And he says Cuomo may be pleasantly surprised over what they ultimately agree upon.

“As we’ve shown in last two years, working with the governor, we managed to vote and resolve many differences on the floor,” Skelos said. “Issues that people never thought would pass the Senate, and they did.”

The Republican Senate majority permitted the gay marriage bill to come to the floor for a vote in 2011, where it passed, even though most of the GOP senators were against the measure.

Meanwhile, some Democrats in the Senate, who say they will not be part of the new governing coalition, joined with advocates to push for public financing of campaigns in press conferences held across the state.

Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, says a watered down version of campaign finance reform would be unacceptable.

“Any partial reforms are not going to fundamentally change how Albany operates,” Scharff said.

There’s also been much speculation over the awarding of leadership titles and committee posts in the new joint Senate coalition. Rev. Al Sharpton and many African-American and Hispanic Democratic senators who are not in the coalition say they should have key committee posts. But Skelos says he expects there won’t be major changes in the committee posts. Most committee chairs are currently held by the GOP.

“There basically will be very little disruption,” Skelos said.

A spokesman for the Senate’s Democratic Conference, which includes the rest of the Democrats, says the more they hear about the new coalition, “the worse news it is for the people of the state,” who  “overwhelmingly voted for progressive change.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.