In the last month, the New York Senate plumbed a new low in messy and irresponsible non-governance. Two Democratic senators, Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada, brought business to a standstill on June 8, when they abruptly switched political parties, giving the Republicans a majority. Monserrate re-defected to the Democrats soon after, leaving a 31-31 tie with no consensus on leadership and little real desire in either party to cooperate with the other.
As the regular session drew to a close, a number of bills that had passed through the New York Assembly remained untouched by the Senate, including measures necessary to sustain local tax codes and the New York City school system. Governor David Paterson drew up a list of nearly 60 bills that he considered priorities and forced the Senate to reconvene in special session. Unable to compromise, the senators spent weeks calmly gaveling in and gaveling out on a daily basis, leaving business untouched in defiance of the governor’s order, and allowing legislative deadlines to whistle by.
A band-aid solution finally calmed the fracas: Espada rejoined his party, calling the stunt a “leave of absence” and putting the Democrats once again in the majority. Fistfuls of legislation were passed frantically through in late-night work conventions, before wrapping up business for the summer.
The bizarre and wasteful month-long Senate coup served only to draw attention to longstanding problems. Policy watchdog organizations in New York State have been using terms such as “egregious” and “dysfunctional” to describe the Senate for years. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy think tank at New York University that publishes a regular report (pdf) on the New York legislature, includes complaints within the reports about the flagrant disregard its calls for reform receive at the capitol.
The Director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, E.J. McMahon, told TAS that the coup was “a lurid sideshow” that itself had little to do with policy and only served to draw attention to the much deeper issues that plague both of the state’s legislative bodies. Chief among these issues: a membership that avoids measures that increase transparency and accountability; committees that rarely convene, if ever; and a leadership powerful enough to pass an even hundred percent of bills it allows to reach the floor, with almost no debate…