More Things Change
this week, Democratic Senator Antoine Thompson of Buffalo
conceded to his Republican opponent, leaving only two Senate
seats undecided. The best Democrats can hope for now, even
if they win the recounts in the two remaining races, is to
deadlock the chamber.
New York Senate Democrats spent their two years in the majority
frustrated by their slim majority, at odds with Gov. David
Paterson and distracted by scandal.
Now, despite the very likely possibility that Republicans
will once again control the chamber, not much in Albany has
really changed. The special session Paterson called this week
was noteworthy primarily for a lack of legislative action.
Some decent pieces of legislation were passed—a bill that
combats wage theft and a moratorium on the controversial natural
gas extraction process of hydrofracking—but both sides of
the Legislature managed to avoid making budget cuts to help
deal with the state’s $315 million midyear budget gap.
Legislative leaders were doing what they do best: posing,
stalling and spinning.
Assembly Democrats blamed the Senate Democrats for being disorganized
and unready. The Senate Republicans blamed the Senate Democrats
for not consulting them. And the Senate Democrats blamed Paterson,
saying his office had not provided them with his deficit reduction
plan until late on session day.
During extraordinary session, the Legislature has to return
and consider a slate of legislation presented by the governor,
but the Legislature is not required to vote on the legislation
the governor puts forth. Both bodies can easily gavel in to
regular session and consider their own bills. If cutting the
budget had been a real concern, both houses could have negotiated
before the session and come up with a package of their own,
or—gasp!—taken time before the session to negotiate with the
governor. Paterson’s office insists that legislative leaders
were given drafts of the legislation and were consulted about
the kind of cuts that would be included in the deficit reduction
So what was holding them back? Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver
commented that he thought it would be a better idea to deal
with the deficit next year during the budget process. Senate
Democrats said they did think dealing with the deficit is
important, but at this point it seems they would do just about
anything to thumb their noses at Paterson. They wouldn’t give
him the satisfaction of having one small triumph before he
fades into obscurity. So taxpayers get to foot the $50,000
bill for bringing the Legislature back into town, unprepared
and unwilling to deal with a cratering deficit.
By Monday evening, Paterson seemed utterly defeated. It seems
he knew he was beaten before the session even took place.
came back to Albany and for some reason couldn’t get it done,”
Paterson lamented. “Was it because they don’t get along with
me? Was it because they would rather the next Legislature
do it? Whatever the reason was, it just demonstrated a complete
lack of what I consider to be respect for the offices that
they hold and, in a sense, a violation of the oath that they
made to the people of the state of New York that when crises
come, leadership commands that you step up and do something
By the end of the day I had images of Ben Stiller in Zoolander
and Madonna’s “Vogue” dancing in my head. It was an embarrassing
fight between old rich men, based on ego and pettiness.
There is talk that the Legislature could return in a few weeks
to take up some bills—perhaps even a deficit reduction plan.
But regardless of what the Legislature decides to do this
year, the usual suspects will be at play. Democrats had a
surprise leadership vote that saw Sen. John Sampson reelected
as head of the Democratic caucus—despite a cloud of scandal
over bidding for operation of the Aqueduct Racino. Senate
Republicans voted to keep Dean Skelos as their leader. Brian
Kolb will remain the Assembly minority leader, and Silver
will (of course) remain speaker.
These are the leaders who spent the last two years mired in
dysfunction, unwilling to deal with the financial realities
the state faces, unwilling to anger powerful unions and other
They are the men Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo will have to
tangle with if he expects to achieve the budget cuts he has
trumpeted and the ethics reforms the state so desperately
Cuomo met with Assembly Democrats on Tuesday, and it is reported
that he had a very upbeat meeting with the caucus. There has
been much speculation that Cuomo will have to go to war with
Silver to get the kinds of cuts he needs because of Silver’s
loyalty to labor. It is also thought that Silver will be the
biggest impediment to ethics overhauls because he opposes
requiring legislators’ lawyers to reveal their clients.
After exiting the lunch, Cuomo went after the Legislature
for not cutting the budget. “Denial is not a life strategy,”
Cuomo has already laid out his strategy for dealing with the
Legislature: Treat them with respect while waging war against
the unions and other interests that oppose cuts, perhaps as
a way to give himself and legislators more political cover
for making the cuts. But Paterson had a warning for Cuomo.
Lamenting the failed session, Paterson said he and the last
three governors have been hamstrung and dominated by the Legislature;
Paterson acknowledged that he and Spitzer angered the Legislature
and ended up being battered by them for it.
Unless the Legislature falls madly in love with Cuomo and
decides to unite behind him, the state seems headed for disaster.
Comptroller Tom DiNapoli estimates that the state’s deficit
is now close to a billion dollars.