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Roundtable event reflects on New York’s political changes, opportunities

March 27, 2024

Any visitor to the New York State Capitol building can see the colorful history of power and politics captured in the murals and portraits that adorn the halls. But we’re in the midst of a transformative shift. The traditional power brokers in Albany — three men in a room — are just like those murals and portraits. History.

We are in a new age as the legislature ushers in a new generation of lawmakers and principles. But, as evident this year, the state budget process remains beholden to a lot of the longstanding machinations in Albany. Lobbyists, advocates, lawmakers and politicos make an extra pot of coffee, hustle for inside information and pace the hallowed halls. The state budget, while still shrouded in secrecy, commands the attention of interested onlookers. 

The Martin Group’s Public Affairs team considers itself a proud member of that group and wanted to get all those like-minded people in one room. So on March 12, 2024, we hosted the second annual Reporters Roundtable in a series of events known as The Capitol View. This installment featured four state Capitol journalists and members of the Legislative Correspondents Association who have a front seat to the legislative activity every day: Nick Reisman of POLITICO, Raga Justin of the Times Union, Rebecca Lewis of City & State and David Lombardo, host of The Capitol Pressroom.

The conversation reflected on the changing of the old guard to the new, the influence of the legislature’s budget proposals, and other policy matters on the horizon.

Changing of the guard

This year, there has been a steady drumbeat of retirement announcements coming out of the state Capitol, from veteran lawmakers to high-level administrative staffers. The loss of experience and wisdom brings up questions of how the politics will change  — and who will be the new players to enter the realm.

Nick Reisman reflected on the loss of institutional knowledge and the impact on legislative conference dynamics. He noted that many critical Assembly committee leaderships position will be left vacant with no natural successor. This creates the opportunity for young leadership to emerge amid a new class of freshman and sophomore lawmakers. But could this result in a top-heavy Assembly Majority Conference, with Speaker Carl Heastie wielding more influence and power? Raga Justin noted that it is not just lawmakers leaving office, but high-level executive branch officials stepping down as well. Both journalists agreed – we are witnessing the generational tensions play out and will most likely see the impact of this on budget negotiations and the remainder of the legislative session.

Legislative response

This year’s Reporters Roundtable was fueled by strong coffee as it came just hours after the middle-of-the-night release of the Senate and Assembly one-house budget resolutions. The room was buzzing with reactions from all who attended.

For the everyday New Yorker, one-house budgets are the legislature’s response to Governor Hochul’s budget proposal she introduced in January. They set the groundwork for weeks of intense discussion and backroom negotiations, and reveals the priorities of the two houses. Lobbyists and advocates comb through pages and pages of policy language to see if their relentless efforts paid off. But how important are the one-houses? At the end of the day, they are just a proposal.

The panel was seemingly split when faced with this question. Nick Reisman, with countless state budgets under his belt, reflected that when he started in the Capitol as an intern 19 years ago, the one-house budgets were barely covered. Now, everyone paces around waiting for them to be released. Rebecca Lewis and Nick agreed that the one-houses provide a small window into the minds of the legislature and serve as a roadmap document on where lawmakers want to take the conversation. Raga Justin noted that it provides an opportunity for political victory with little consequence. Simply, it’s enough for some lawmakers to say they got an issue included in the one-house budget without any commitment for its actual inclusion in the final budget.

What was clear from the discussion was the one-houses are an important part of the budget dance, but as Rebecca perfectly put it, “it’s not a dance that will win any awards.”

Lawmaking and campaigning

Once again, it is a legislative election year. Every two years, lawmakers balance their duties in Albany with campaigning back in their districts. For incumbent legislators, the stakes are high. Many experienced lawmakers are facing primary opponents. Some choose to stay away from controversial issues in an effort to avoid criticism, while others push provocative issues harder in hopes to secure a victory to tout back home.

Nick pointed out the unique dynamic between the executive and the legislature this year as Governor Hochul is not up for election because she has a four-year term, while the rest of the lawmakers are. He is curious if she will use this leverage to secure top priorities such as Medicaid spending and housing. Rebecca Lewis, however, countered the sentiment as she believes Governor Hochul’s position of power is not as strong as it appears. She noted that the governor’s budget proposal was universally panned. She is on the defense when it comes to salvaging political points.

Albany’s political aftershow

The New York State budget, while the marquee moment of the legislative session, is not the end. There remain weeks of legislative action before the halls of the state Capitol empty in June. So what’s next?

Raga Justin does not think the legislature can leave Albany this year without addressing the migrant crisis in New York City and various upstate communities. Nick Reisman is watching how what is accomplished during the legislative session, or lack thereof, affects the six congressional races throughout the state. He reflected on how what happens in New York State reverberates throughout the rest of the country. It is why many lawmakers choose to stay in Albany, instead of continuing on to the federal level.

Capitol viewpoints

To those in the room, the takeaway was clear— change is in the air. We are amid a transition in New York State that will have far-reaching ripple effects. Even those on the panel represent a combining of two generations (to which Dave and Nick frequently reminded Raga). Raga Justin brings a younger, fresh perspective to reporting on only her second state budget. While moderator, Dave Lombardo and panelist, Nick Reisman have the wisdom (and perhaps slight cynicism) that comes with covering every legislative session dating back to before the infamous Senate coup of ’09. Just as the legislature is experiencing a changing of the guard, so too is the Legislative Correspondents Association.

The landscape in Albany is indeed changing and how lucky are we to get a front row seat to all of it.

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