Answering Your Questions About the Chaos in Albany

By
Photo: AP

As we enter day 23 of the Empire State Conflict, you might be asking yourself: Why are these guys up in Albany such doofuses? Why can't they shut up and do their damn jobs? The legislative chaos is infuriating, but it's also quite confusing. So here's a helpful FAQ that may not make you feel better about the fate of your government or the future of democracy, but will at least help you to grasp the ins and outs of this giant, stupid mess.

How did we get into this?

You can blame Thomas Golisano, the billionaire, libertarian businessman and Albany's most fearsome gadfly. Fed up with Senate Republicans, leading up to the last election Golisano poured money into a bunch of Democratic races, assuming Senate leader Malcolm Smith and his newly empowered majority would reciprocate by restraining spending and reforming the Senate rules. Instead, Democrats ignored him (symbolized by Smith's BlackBerry faux pas). Golisano took his revenge by brokering a coup, persuading two Democrats under criminal investigations, Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate, to join forces with Republicans.

So it's all Golisano's fault?

No. While he provided the spark, the Senate was ready to explode. Republicans were desperate to regain power (which is crucial to their fund-raising strength) before the 2010 elections, the outcome of which determines who gets to redraw the district maps. And Democrats, with a narrow and factious majority, were vulnerable to attack. In the end, the coup depended on Republicans controlling 32 or more votes. When Hiram Monserrate lost his nerve and fled back to the Democratic trenches, the resulting 31–31 split has prevented either side from assuming command of the chamber and legally passing bills.

Why can't they just act like adults and and agree on something?

Both sides claim they are receptive to a power-sharing structure in which control of the floor would rotate between Democrats and the Republican-led coalition. Democrats, however, are demanding that Republicans replace Espada as Senate president, a constitutional post that puts Espada — who is under state and local investigations into his finances, campaign filings, and residency — a heartbeat away from the governorship. Republicans are not terribly fond of Espada either, but they don't want to renege on their deal with him. Without him, they're back to the minority.

So it's just about Espada?

If it were only that simple.

Democratic divisions — along racial, geographic, and ideological lines — have also complicated the negotiations. Democrats elected Brooklyn lawyer John Sampson as their leader, replacing Queens senator Malcolm Smith, but it's not clear who's in charge over there. The coup has inflamed tensions between the black caucus, led by Sampson and Smith, and other Democratic factions.

Smith and Republicans last week were prepared to shake on a deal making Republican Dean Skelos majority leader, Smith Senate president, and Espada "vice-president" and chairman of the finance committee. (Sampson, apparently, would remain the Democrats' conference leader.) The deal blew up when Smith brought it back to his members.

Smith's long-standing in-party rivals, Jeff Klein and Diane Savino, who represent outer-borough districts, feared they would be marginalized and accused Smith of self-dealing. Democrats then ousted Smith from the bargaining table, insisting that a larger group negotiate with the Republicans. As talks have stalled, Savino, a former labor negotiator, has been trying to circumvent the leaders of both parties and reach a deal with the 50-odd other members.

Why don't those anti-Smith Democrats just flip over to the Republican side?

It would seem to make sense for the Klein and Savino faction — which includes several upstate and suburban members — to split from the conference. The problem is, Republican leader Dean Skelos doesn't want them on his team. Some of them represent seats in the very districts that he hopes to grab in 2010. And for the Democrats, the political risk of jumping ship would actually be huge. For now, they prefer to stay put and expand their power within the Democratic conference.

Is there anything else holding things up?

Yes. Another question is divvying up the Senate's internal budget, which employs nearly 1,400 people. In January, after picking up two seats, Democrats were in charge for the first time in decades. Having been deprived of staff resources and pork projects for so long, Democrats aren't eager to part with the spoils of victory.

Is that it?

One other thing. The two sides are battling over the duration of any agreement. Democrats want a short-term fix — just enough to pass the urgent stuff and get the public off their backs. Republicans don't want to lose their toehold, and so are insisting on a deal that extends to next year's elections.

So, how is this going to end?

Neither Governor David Paterson nor the courts can force lawmakers to settle their differences. Given the obstacles, the chances of a power-sharing agreement are slim. The most likely scenario is that one lawmaker crosses over to enemy territory, allowing one side to reach the necessary quorum and pass legislation.

Who should we be rooting for?

Neither side can take the moral high ground. Both have opened their arms to alleged criminals (though the promotion of Espada to Senate president wins the prize for shamelessness). If you're judging on policy, Democrats are more supportive of rent regulations, looser drug laws, and funding for social services. Senate Republicans are against tax increases but are only slightly more willing to limit spending.

What's happening on mayoral control?

It's looking like lawmakers won't vote to reauthorize mayoral control until they reach a truce. The bill has more than enough support among the 62 members to pass, but Democrats may be holding it up to gain leverage in their negotiations and to punish Mayor Bloomberg, who has traditionally been supportive of Senate Republicans. They also don't buy the mayor's argument that a delay would cause massive disruptions. Bloomberg is trying to preserve the system by ensuring that borough presidents appoint board members supportive of his policies, but over time, the city's contingency plan will be increasingly vulnerable to legal challenges and political threats.

What about the same-sex marriage bill?

For gay-marriage advocates, it doesn't look good — at least in the short term. The chances of passing the bill without a power-sharing agreement aren't very strong. At the moment, lawmakers are restricting their agenda lists to non-controversial items. As long as the Senate is evenly split, lawmakers are going to avoid measures that could upset that balance.

But even if one side regains a majority of members, the bill faces an uphill climb. Democrats lack a strong leader who can twist arms. The mêlée in Albany has diverted attention away from the legislation and deflated momentum achieved by the advocates. But the issue isn't going away. Supporters just have to wait for more dust to settle before resuming their push.

Is there a silver lining in all of this?

Maybe. In the last week, an undercurrent of frustration among the rank-and-file members has swelled. Members, who historically are beholden to their leaders and central staff, may wind up with more power to put bills on the floor for a vote, opening the door for more robust debate. But any blossoming would likely wilt as soon as one side achieves a decisive majority.