May 2, 2009
State Legislature hampered by gridlock
ALBANY - For more than 30 years, Democrats blamed the Capitol's paralysis on a legislature where the political parties spilt
control of the two houses.But bills haven't been adopted any quicker since January, when Democrats took charge of the State Senate after 43 years of Republican rule. Their two-seat majority, together with bitter partisanship and no lieutenant governor to break tie votes, means that if one Democrat balks, a deal may be dead.
That's been displayed for the past two months as one plan after another to bail out the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been scuttled by a few Democratic senators, despite the endorsement of Gov. David A. Paterson and the Assembly's Democratic majority. Other issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage and the preservation of rent control in New York City face similar limbo.
Meanwhile, the signature achievements of the legislative session so far - expanding the bottle deposit law and repeal of the Rockefeller-era drug laws - only happened because they were tucked into the state budget to secure the necessary votes.
Experts described the Senate last week as a bottleneck, undermining the efforts of Paterson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to showcase the benefits of Democrats controlling state government for the first time since 1935. Some party leaders are in such despair that they are mulling the once unthinkable: wooing the GOP, the experts said.
"There is major gridlock . . . it's worse than it has been in years," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters. "On any major issue - the MTA, gay marriage, you name it - one Democrat can hold things up because the Republicans aren't going to provide the votes for passage. They're all about winning back the majority in 2010."
Lawmakers' penchant for secrecy only exacerbates the situation. Senate leaders are loath to bring a bill to the floor without knowing it will be adopted. So rank-in-file senators aren't forced to take a stand and be subjected to lobbying that could sway votes.
"Through public debate in the chamber and up-and-down votes, the more likely you are to get past the bottleneck," said Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which in 2004 found New York's legislature to be the nation's most dysfunctional. "Legislators don't want to be seen as holding up an important change for self-interest and that's much easier to do behind closed doors."
Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D- St. Albans) said it was unfair to expect "us to walk on water" after being in power for less than 100 days. He promised action on paid family leave, campaign finance reform and property tax relief.
The number of bills passing both houses hasn't changed significantly from 2007, the start of the last two-year session. But Republicans said more controversial measures were taken up two years ago than they are now.
Smith insisted the 32-member Democratic conference is united, pointing to unanimity for closing last year's budget deficit after the GOP failed to reach agreement with Paterson. The senator also touted passage of the new budget, which included the Bigger Better Bottle Bill and changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, both stymied for years by Republicans.
Smith denied rank-and-file members were holding hostage major legislation. "Everybody starts out in a wide area . . . but at the end of the day, they do what we have to do," he said.
While saying he wants to work with Republicans "once they get over their anger at losing the majority," Smith accused them of putting politics ahead of passing legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos (R- Rockville Centre) shot back that the 30-member GOP conference had been excluded from talks on the budget and other issues. The 2009-10 spending plan passed the upper chamber along party lines, a first in modern state history.
Skelos noted Republicans ran the Senate with a two-seat majority for most of last year minus gridlock. "Treat us fairly. Bring us into the process and I think you could see change in terms of votes," he added.
Paterson met privately with Skelos on April 21 to iron out differences and, experts said, attempt to break the Senate logjam, specifically on the MTA.
"It was a positive step," Bartoletti said, "but I don't see things changing in the Senate until after the 2010 elections when Democrats either increase their majority or Republicans win back the house."