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The More Things Change

Earlier 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 plan.

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.

“They 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 about it.”

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 interests.

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 needs.

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,” he said.

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.

—David King

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