Some surprises as Senate Democrats announce committee chairs

An empty New York State Senate
An empty New York State Senate
Photo by Mike Groll
The New York Senate as seen with barely any chairs filled.

Some surprises as Senate Democrats announce committee chairs

Incoming freshman will have footholds to push progressive legislation.
December 11, 2018

The new Democratic majority in the state Senate announced committee chair assignments Tuesday morning, giving Capitol watchers a better sense of the political lay of the land once the session starts up in January. Some chairmanships came as a surprise though, as Democrats kept tight lips during the high stakes negotiations.

Some of the choices were expected. Liberal Manhattan stalwart state Sen. Liz Krueger, who was ranking member of the Finance Committee last session, will chair the powerful committee this session with broad influence on budgetary matters. And incoming state Sen. Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins will chair the Rules Committee, which is customarily led by the majority leader.

But other choices were unforeseen, like the appointment of Manhattan state Sen. Brian Kavanagh to lead the Housing Committee, even though he wasn’t a member last session, as Albany heads toward what’s sure to be a fierce debate about what to do with the state’s expiring rent regulations. The full list of appointments at the bottom of the page, but here are some other major points from the announcement.

Everyone gets a committee… almost

Out of a likely 39 members in the Democratic conference, 38 of them will chair either a committee or a subcommittee. That number of total members is still a bit fuzzy because of state Sen. Simcha Felder, who won re-election this year on both the Republican and Democratic lines, could join the conference and get the number up to 40. Felder caucused with the Republican majority since taking office in 2013, and hasn’t commented on what party he’ll join this session. But Felder is nakedly transactional, and the Democrats leaving him without a committee – namely, the Cities Committee and New York City Education Subcommittee that he used to chair – may encourage him to stick with the Republicans. However letting him chair a committee surely would have enraged party activists who sent a letter to Stewart-Cousins on Nov. 28 asking that Democratic disloyalty not go unpunished. The other Democrat without a chairmanship is state Sen. Michael Gianaris, but this wasn’t a slight towards him. He’s chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and as deputy leader of the Senate, can sit in on any committee he wants.

Can Albany fix the subways?

Commenters online weren’t too kind to the appointment of state Sen. Tim Kennedy to chair Transportation, a committee he wasn't the ranking member on last session and whose Buffalo district is about as far as you can get from the sprawling Metropolitan Transportation Authority service area while still in New York state. But the MTA and its well-documented budget woes are under the eye of many committees, including Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which will be chaired by state Sen. Leroy Comrie, from southeast Queens and Cities, which will be chaired by state Sen. Robert Jackson of Upper Manhattan.

How liberal can they go?

That’s the question of the session, as Democrats will now control the state Senate, Assembly and governor’s mansion for the first time since 2010, and an influx of new members campaigned on progressive proposals. Kavanagh will be in the middle of discussions as Albany debates universal rent control, and Krueger will keep up her push tolegalize and tax marijuana in the Finance Committee. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, as chairman of Health, will likely lead the push for a statewide single-payer health care system, which he’s championed as lead sponsor of the New York Health Act. Rivera will also be in the middle of debate on the Reproductive Health Act, which would codify the right to an abortion in state law, but so will state Sen. Julia Salazar, who will chair the newly created Women’s Health Subcommittee. Ironically, Salazar used to lead an anti-abortion group in college, but she’s since repudiated those views and campaigned on passing the Reproductive Health Act.

Some committees killed, others created

Salazar’s Women’s Health Subcommittee isn’t the only new group. State Sen. Brian Benjamin will chair the newly created Revenue and Budget Subcommittee, and state Sen. Monica Martinez will chair the new Domestic Animal Welfare Subcommittee. The temporary committee on Science, Technology, Incubation And Entrepreneurship and the task force on Technology and Innovation which existed last session have been combined into a new subcommittee on Internet and Technology, chaired by state Sen. Diane Savino.

Two other committees that existed last session have yet to be filled, Libraries and State-Native American Relations, but a Senate Democratic spokesman said those positions may be filled later, and that other committees may be created when session starts up.

But one committee has been eliminated. The committee on Infrastructure and Capital Investment, where Kennedy served as ranking member, will be absorbed into the Transportation Committee, which Kennedy will chair.

Former IDC’ers mixed, but challengers ascendent

Speaking of Savino, she seems to have been punished for her former involvement with the Independent Democratic Conference. She served as vice chair of Finance and Codes, two of the Senate’s most powerful committees, when the IDC had a power sharing agreement with the Republican majority. She lost the positions after the IDC reunited with the Democratic conference in April, and now has been left chairing an uninspiring subcommittee. State Sen. David Carlucci, the only other remaining former IDC member after six lost in the primaries, fared a bit better. He’ll chair Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, which he chaired in a past session.

The six Senators who beat former IDC members will all chair committees, among them state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who will lead debate on voting reforms as chairman of the Elections Committee. And as chair of the Ethics and Internal Governance Committee, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi will lead debate on ethics reforms, including the controversial proposal to limit outside income as a condition of further pay raises for legislators.

Of course, money is omnipresent in politics. “It’s all about what you can fundraise off of,” said one anonymous elected official. Chairing a committee like Labor, Insurance and Racing, Gaming and Wagering can lead to big bucks in your campaign account from interest groups hoping for a seat at the table. The Ethics Committee, the official said, doesn’t bring in any money.

Correction: This article originally stated state Sen. Tim Kennedy wasn't on the Transportation Committee in the last session. 

Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs

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Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs
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Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs
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Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs
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Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs
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Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs

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Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs
Alt Text: 
Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs
Title Text: 
Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs
Caption: 
Announced 2019-2020 state Senate Chairs

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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