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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.

July 06, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak and Richard Simon

SAN FRANCISCO AND ALBANY, N.Y. — 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."

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