Albany Power Struggle Creates Legislative Gridlock

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Albany remains at a standstill as Republican and Democratic state senators engage in a power struggle to control their chamber. The gridlock has many Albany observers - and New Yorkers - scratching their heads over how this can happen. WNYC's Elaine Rivera reports:

REPORTER: The day the June 8th coup began after the close of the session, legislators scrambled to find out if the procedure that allowed two dissident Democratic senators to align themselves with Republicans followed parliamentarian rules. They went to look for a copy of the procedural book - known as the Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure - which most state legislatures follow. But none of the senators had one in their possession. A source tells WNYC they went to the chamber's library where there was supposed to be a copy - but it had been checked out.

The anecdote is emblematic of what Albany insiders say is an extraordinary set of circumstances that created the current crisis. Gerald Benjamin, a professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz has observed state politics for more than three decades. He says he's never seen anything like this.

BENJAMIN: So there's rules, however much we can and should criticize our legislature, you can't fault a body for not having a rule concerning an eventuality that might arise once every 1,000 years.

REPORTER: Benjamin ticks off all the unusual events that came together - to create the perfect storm so to speak - that has led to the Albany standstill.

BENJAMIN: One you have the vacancy in the lieutenant governorship, two you have the two-vote majority in the Senate, three you have the even number of seats created by the Republicans to retain their majority....

REPORTER: And Benjamin goes on - one of the two dissident Democrats Hiram Monserrate who with Pedro Espada Junior gave Republicans control - returned to the Democrats causing an even split. And Benjamin adds, it doesn't help that there was an unpopular Democratic majority Leader, Malcolm Smith, along with a weak governor David Paterson.

For most New Yorkers, life may go on in their communities and they may not see the immediate impact of what many describe as the ultimate in dysfunctional behaviour at the state Capitol. But Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, says there are serious consequences if the leadership dispute isn't resolved quickly.

One, is it reinforces public cynicism that Albany can do anything. And second, there are key laws that expire at the end of this month - laws that deal with local governments' financial affairs. And if the senate isn't working - if they're not passing laws like they're supposed to - those local government finances will be in shambles.

Horner says it's highly unlikely, but the situation can be resolved if one party concedes and gives the other the majority. If not...

HORNER: The only other way out of this mess is for there to be some sort of compromise between the Democrats and Republicans to share resources and to share decision making at least for the next week or so to get the people's work done and then they can go back to fighting with each other in July when important legislation is not held hostage to this partisan bickering...

REPORTER: But Gerald Benjamin says it may be tougher than that. He says the real battle is about which party is going to dominate in the next decade. He says Republicans who held control of the state Senate for more than four decades until last year's elections - are holding on to this last bastion because they've lost all statewide offices. What happens in the Senate could determine their future, Benjamin says.

BENJAMIN: It's not just for power today it's power for the long term that they're battling.

REPORTER: If the embattled senators don't reach an agreement soon, Governor Paterson says he'll intervene to set the agenda himself. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera