JULY 6, 2009
NEW YORK TAKES LEGISLATIVE GRIDLOCK TO NEXT LEVEL
Lights are turned off, lawmakers are locked out. Power plays in the
state Senate have held up legislation. No resolution is in sight.
By MARK Z. BARABAK and RICHARD SIMON
As California lawmakers stay locked in partisan gridlock, residents might take small solace in one fact: There is a legislative body even more divided, more hapless and more dysfunctional than the one in Sacramento.
For almost a month, ever since Republicans briefly won two Democrats to their side and tried to seize control, the state Senate in New York has been paralyzed, split 31 to 31, as a stack of legislation — legalizing same-sex marriage, extending the mayor’s control of New York City schools, renewing the authority local governments need to conduct business — sits in limbo.
During that time lawmakers have convened dueling sessions — each claiming legitimacy — huffed over which party should lead members in the Pledge of Allegiance and fought about whether a Republican lawmaker crossing the chamber to fetch a drink should have counted toward a quorum, allowing Democrats to pass more than 100 “noncontroversial” bills, which the state Assembly refuses to recognize.
In California, lawmakers are at least trying to resolve the state’s budget crisis.
“It’s shameful,” said Seymour Lachman, an author and former Democratic state senator who teaches government at Staten Island’s Wagner College.
As of Sunday, there was no resolution in sight. Democratic Gov. David Paterson, politically hobbled, exercised his scant authority over lawmakers by calling a brief special session — the regular one ended June 22 — over the Independence Day weekend. (A few lawmakers balked at sticking around, including Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Democrat and pastor from the South Bronx, who left Albany for Sunday services. “They’re going to arrest me in church?” he said.)
For all its seriousness, the legislative coup has often played like a putsch inside a circus tent. Democrats initially cut the lights and killed TV coverage from the Senate chamber, trying to thwart the GOP. Next, they attempted to lock rebel lawmakers outside, but Republicans found a key.
At one point, the two sides held simultaneous sessions, wielding separate gavels, passing two sets of legislation and heckling and shouting past each other to be heard by their respective presiding officers. (Democrats sat at their desks when Republicans led the Pledge of Allegiance, but later stood for their own recitation.)
On another day Democrats claimed a quorum after a Republican senator, Frank Padavan of Queens, wandered through the chamber to get a drink. That gave Democrats the 32 members needed to be present to pass legislation — or so they claimed — and they gaveled through about 125 bills.
Republicans protested, and Padavan swore out a detailed affidavit plotting his passage — “I wanted to obtain a cup of coffee from the Member’s Lounge, which is located outside the west entrance to the chamber” — and disputing Democrats’ quorum claim.
A strong governor might be able to end the impasse and Paterson has tried, bringing the two sides together for negotiations. But the former lieutenant governor, who replaced Eliot Spitzer last year after he quit over a sex scandal, is held in minimal regard by both lawmakers and the voting public. A May survey by Siena College gave the incumbent an anemic 18% job approval rating and found that those polled preferred Spitzer, notwithstanding his dalliance with a high-priced call girl, to Paterson.
Albany is a dreary place with a colorful history of corruption and political chicanery. But even longtime observers say they have never seen anything like the madcap events that have unfolded since June 8, when Senate Republicans, thrust in the minority for the first time in 40 years, seized back power by wooing two Democrats to their side. The triumph was short-lived: One of the defectors quickly returned to the Democrat fold, resulting in the 31-31 stalemate.
The New York Legislature, a fiefdom run by the powerful heads of the Assembly and Senate, has long ranked as one of the worst in the country. Some reasons are endemic, including lax ethics laws and the extraordinary power lawmakers have to hand out large pots of money.
Others are familiar to any student of California politics, including the prohibitive cost of campaigns and a pattern of gerrymandering, or legislative line-drawing, that serves to stifle competition.
In both states, the bulk of the population lives in big metropolitan areas and cares little for the doings in their far-off (and comparatively sleepy) state capitals, which helps protect incumbents and perpetuate their insularity.
“People don’t know and don’t want to know how their government works,” said Doug Muzzio, a political analyst and public affairs professor at New York’s Baruch College. The bottom line in Albany, he said, “is power, perquisites and patronage. And, only incidentally, policy.”
Leaders of the Republican takeover claimed to be acting in the name of reform and good government, which makes for an interesting choice of allies. One of the defectors, Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens, faces trial on charges of slashing his girlfriend in the face with a broken glass. He is back with fellow Democrats, expressing satisfaction after they replaced their leader following his short GOP fling.
The other, Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx, has been fined tens of thousand of dollars for campaign finance violations and is being investigated by state and local authorities in connection with a nonprofit he ran and questions about whether he lives in his district. Republicans have made the freshman lawmaker one of their leaders.
“It’s about power, money and status. Primarily money,” Lachman said of the political maneuvering, noting the benefits that flow to the majority party, including bigger staffs, more state funds to shower on supporters and a greater ability to raise campaign cash. (Democrats remain in firm control of the Assembly, which they have run for decades.)
By now, lawmakers have settled into a routine: They respond to the governor’s summons by milling about the Senate chamber for a few minutes — Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other — then adjourning. Even the public seems weary of the spectacle; by last week there were plenty of empty seats in the once-crowded Senate viewing gallery.
Unlike California, New York passed a budget by the start of its fiscal year, April 1. Still, the stalemate has not been without consequence. As of Wednesday, many cities lost authority to conduct routine operations, including issuing bonds, mailing tax notices and collecting certain operational fees. In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg scrambled to reconstitute the Board of Education after a deadline passed to extend his authority over the school system.
Lawmakers have gone to court, but a judge said it would be “improper” to meddle in Senate business. That leaves legislators to sort out the mess, and, as some of them see it, things could be worse. Take California.
“We’re not looking at issuing IOUs to keep the government afloat,” said Sen. Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat from Manhattan. California has “structural problems that are far worse than what we’ve got. We’ve got a political problem that we will resolve.”
“In a matter of days,” he said he hoped. “Certainly in a matter of weeks.”