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Times-Union – Richard Brodsky: Single-payer health insurance will be Dems’ bellwether

By Richard Brodsky, November 12

The outlines of Albany 2019 are beginning to emerge from the election results. There’s plenty to think about, but nothing will be more important or more politically potent than the fate of single-payer health insurance legislation.

We won’t examine the merits. There are arguments on both sides and abundant disinformation about cost and consequences.

Put that aside and think about the politics. It’s a foundation commitment for Democrats in New York and nationally. When Republicans ran the state Senate, single-payer died at the hands of the wily, persistent and now-defeated chair of the Health Committee, Sen. Kemp Hannon, R-Garden City. Those days are over. The Assembly, led by the wily and persistent chair of its own Health Committee, Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan, has passed its bill five times. Incumbent Senate Democrats and most newly elected ones support the concept. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s been noncommittal, expressing support in principle and concern about details.

If progressives get their way, this could be the first initiative of the new session. Consider the consequences of a decision by the new Senate majority to make single-payer the first item of business in January, voted on before the governor’s executive budget is due on Feb. 1.

Cuomo and the Assembly will immediately be on the spot. Should the Assembly follow through by again passing the bill? If not, there will be significant statewide and national anger, including from the Working Families Party, which emerged from the elections with real clout. Does Cuomo support, oppose, or play for time? Anything short of immediate support puts him under the same kind of statewide and national pressure, intensified by any presidential ambitions he may have. He does not want to start the 2020 scrutiny process by explaining why he’s not enthusiastic about a key part of the progressive platform.

Cuomo is likely to play for time and ask the Democrats to wait. That will trigger questions about what Cuomo will or won’t include in his budget, something the Senate Democrats will care about.

In other words, the timing of single-payer legislation is crucial. If the new Democratic majority decides to play hardball early, they create leverage they otherwise won’t have. If they don’t, Cuomo can finesse the issue and the Legislature is on the defensive.

These kind of machinations are a normal part of legislative politics and are not a bad thing. But they require both firmness and delicacy. It’s simply unclear whether the new majority will be up to the test as quickly as January.

The new Senate will also wrestle with ethics and election reform, school aid, the MTA, tax cuts and caps and much more as the dozen new members learn the ropes. The Assembly will have to decide whether to backtrack on its ambitious legislative agenda of the past few years. The governor will eventually have to declare on the progressive agenda, and find ways to pay for his big projects of the past two years. What happens in January with single-payer, or doesn’t happen, will tell a great deal about the rest of the year.

Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.