News from the Desk of State Senator Liz Krueger
Three weeks of a 31-31 split Senate. Tensions are high—and not just back at home. The media is beating up on us all pretty effectively, constituents are yelling, and staff are frustrated without answers to endless questions.
One of my constituents writes “The behavior of both of the rival factions in the past weeks has been increasingly childish, disreputable, irresponsible, and disrespectful of the people who sent you to Albany.” I suspect every Senator has received their share of similar notes. The one thing most of us may share is that we are embarrassed and angry. There is no question that New Yorkers deserve better.
Did any of us sign up for this? Fact: I did. I asked my district to elect me and to hold me accountable. Of course you should all feel free to keep voicing your frustration, and I would also really appreciate your suggestions.
For the record, I sure wish the press would stop calling the Republican Conference the “Reform Coalition.” 30 Republicans and Pedro Espada does not a Coalition make (see Bush’s Iraq War Coalition of the not-so-willing as a reference).
For weeks now my Democratic colleagues and I have been trying to get members of both parties to agree to move bills, while recognizing that neither is prepared to give up their claim to leadership. The Democrats want to move bills first, and deal with leadership after the deadlines for legislation are met. The Republicans believe their leverage on leadership ends if the bills are passed, so they won’t agree to pass bills without linking action on legislation to resolving the leadership fight.
This whole scenario reminds me of my first run for office (in 2000). It was too close to call, and there was a 6½ week recount. Oddly, my opponent kept suing to stop the ballots from being counted. It was hell. We all knew eventually only one of us would win. I lost, but the worst part by far was the 6½ weeks of counting. The current situation in Albany carries the same feeling.
Having said that, if you believe in democracy and the law, you are not supposed to give up your beliefs because the pressure is high and everybody is mad at you. Right? Pedro Espada should not be the highest ranking official in the NY State Senate, whichever party is “claiming him”. Next in line for Governor? The power to give people critically important appointments? The power to give people pardons? New York does not need someone with only a passing acquaintance with honesty to be just one heartbeat away from the Governor's office. It is simply unacceptable to have such a person in any position with such direct influence over the lives of 19 million New Yorkers.
The Governor has sued the Senate to get us back into the chamber to complete the work on legislation that is expiring in the coming weeks. The Court case was Monday afternoon and the Judge ordered both Senate Republicans and Democrats into extraordinary session Tuesday. HURRAY! The Republicans immediately went back to court to appeal the judge’s order that the legislators go back into the chamber to complete their work or face an order of contempt. The Republican’s appeal was denied but when the Republicans came to the chamber they refused to recognize the presiding officer, Andrea Stewart Cousins. While they claim they want to complete the peoples’ business their actions contradict their rhetoric. Instead they continue to refuse to participate in anything that doesn't accept the results of their illegal coup. At least in New York State, unlike Honduras, our coups do not involve military intervention, though perhaps it will soon if Governor Paterson calls the troopers on us.
Oh, by the way, the Governor had to sue us because there is no Lieutenant Governor, hence no tie breaker if a vote on legislation is 31 -31. There seems to be a lot of confusion about that fact. You may be wondering who set up a situation that is vulnerable to such disaster. Ironically, the Republicans did, during the 2002 redistricting. New York State has been bleeding Republican voters for years, so to protect their majority, they gerrymandered a bunch of districts and added a Senator on the last possible night without telling anyone. Yes, you can do this! So suddenly we had 62, not 61 Senators -- and the real possibility of tie votes. But, the Lieutenant Governor has the authority to vote during ties... so not to worry. Except, Governor Spitzer (remember him?) had to get out of town, making Lieutenant Governor Paterson the Governor. Hence, no Lieutenant Governor, no way to replace him 'til the next election and no tie-breaker. And the President Pro Tempore as next in line for Governor (see above, Pedro Espada).
Back to Tuesday: At noon we held a session and one Republican (Frank Padavan) entered the chamber, giving us a quorum. The Senate Rules and case law are very specific on what constitutes a quorum and when a senator is marked as present. The mere presence of a senator in the senate chamber, even just by entering or walking through the room, will result in the journal clerk recognizing the elected as being in attendance. We passed a long list of noncontroversial bills essential to local governments including:
$136.5 million: Power for Jobs Extender to protect 250,000 jobs
$2.2 billion: No Child Left Behind Compliance
$1.5 billion: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Update
$175 million: Medicaid Compliance School Supportive Health
$1.382 billion: Statewide City and County Sales Tax Extenders
$25.2 million: Mortgage Recording Tax Extenders & Increases
$25 million: Hotel & Motel Tax Extenders & Increases
$2.9 million: Real Estate Transfer Tax Extenders & Taxes
$1.5 million: Wireless Communications Local Surcharges
$10 million: Yonkers PIT Surcharge
$225 million: NYC Business Tax Conformance
$63 million: NYC UBT & SSF Business Supports
$500 million: NYS Housing Finance Agency Bonding
$300 million: SONYMA Bonding Authority
$315 million: SONYMA Mortgage Insurance Fund
$500 million: Starrett City Financing
$30 million: Housing Tax Incentives 421-b
However, at this moment it appears that Senator Padavan is now claiming he did not enter the chamber intending to vote on legislation, and the Republicans are challenging the passage of these bills despite the fact that he came to the chamber, so once again, stay tuned...
I have included a link to what Senate Democrats proposed that could be used as a model for additional sessions. If this power sharing proposal works then there are more bills that can get done. Yes, it’s a bit technical – a bunch of “whereas’s” -- you lawyers will love it. But we all know the line about making laws and sausages, and things in Albany have gone through the grinder more than a few times in the last couple of weeks.
Of course there is so much more—which is where we get back to the question of do you elect us just to keep the trains running on time (non controversial, but important) or because you want someone who will fight for issues you care about? And I know you share my frustration that the current conflict in the Senate has kept us from addressing many important issues, including school governance, tenants' rights, global warming and marriage equality.
The events that have taken place during the last three weeks in New York State's Capitol have been so shocking and so surreal that I doubt the best Hollywood screenwriters could have written such a story.
Countless articles and books have been written about the “three men in a room” phenomenon that is Albany -- the Governor, Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker making all the decisions behind closed doors for 19.5 million people. But on Monday June 8th, we shifted to a one man model where an unelected billionaire who, having lost several attempts to become our State’s Governor, still wanted to make all the decisions. His name is Tom Golisano and he recently announced he was moving to Florida to avoid paying New York State income taxes. But before he left, he showed up outside the Senate Chamber in the Capitol and stood with the Republican leadership when they announced that they had the votes to take control of the Senate. This control would allow the Republicans to set the legislative agenda.
At first, just one billionaire seemed to be the “mastermind behind the coup.” But, as the days went by, others rushed to claim equal bragging rights to have purchased the coup and have inserted themselves into the muck. The cast includes: a lobbyist for the real estate industry who is also the lawyer for the lead Senator who traded sides and voluntarily represents Senator Espada in internal Senate business (not everybody likes tenant legislation but shouldn’t we all have to follow the law?); the anti-choice movement claimed victory (we were about to pass a reproductive rights bill), we hoped to move campaign finance reform and ethics legislation (isn't that like Communism?), and I have even heard that those who oppose marriage equality are taking credit (Oh no! New York, which already recognizes same sex marriages conducted in other states would benefit from the economic activity and tax revenue generated by LGBT weddings).
So everybody is mad that we are not having session and about bills being passed or not passed. You'd think someone might also care that buying votes or a legislator’s party allegiance is theoretically illegal, even a felony.
So, here we are on July 1st and you are demanding resolution, if not an actual functioning government. To quote one of the many recent newspaper editorials: “Surely no one but the most callous and calculating of politicians could be proud of this performance. Surely Republicans and Democrats alike are embarrassed. Surely any Senator with a shred of political acumen is dusting off his or her resume in preparation for what well could be a mass layoff next year, courtesy of the electorate.”
Clearly, we need to work out an agreement to conduct business in a evenly split chamber. Other states have done so. And we can adopt new rules to provide for the ability for rank and file members to move bills to the floor for debate and vote, establish equitable distribution of staff and member resources, and either create a rationale system for distributing member items or end the practice.
Equity. Reform. Honesty. This is what I have always been about, and I assure you, I have not changed. I am still as committed to reforming our Senate rules as I was from day one. And since January, I have even been fighting my own Democratic colleagues for not going far enough in our reform agenda. I think you all know that I have never shied away from telling the truth about the dysfunctional ways of our state government, and I am not stopping now. I want you to know that I am working hard to resolve this, but I can’t ignore my values and principles for the sake of just cutting a deal. For me, the fundamental fight is not about party control—it is about having leaders who we can trust to protect the interests of all New Yorkers.
I hope that in the coming months we will have that leadership, and can implement the reforms so desperately needed for an improved and functioning legislature but regardless of the outcome of the current battles, I will always be fighting for reform and for a progressive agenda. While it is sometimes difficult to keep the faith, I still believe that the change that I went to Albany to accomplish is still possible.