Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Way Out of the Senate Logjam NOW

The mess in the State Senate is starting to have serious consequences. After a three-week deadlock over control of that body, the Senate today watched a number of deadlines pass. Several jurisdictions had hoped to extend or increase certain taxes to fill budget holes, and there is confusion over who controls New York City schools. Meanwhile, a bill to increase jobless benefits cannot be passed, power rates for many local businesses are likely to spike because subsidies have expired, and several local jurisdictions are warning that they may have to raise property taxes and fire local employees, including police.

Various members have noted that they are "embarrassed" and "frustrated" by what's happened. There is a simple solution to getting us out of this morass, and Senator Frank Padavan may have inadvertently provided it when he walked into the Senate chamber yesterday looking for a cup of coffee. Democrats claimed they had a momentary quorum, and that all subsequent matters voted on should count.

While nobody seems to be buying this claim, it raises an obvious question: why doesn't one member, working with the Governor, break this logjam -- at least for non-controversial items that will allow local jurisdictions to balance their budgets.

After all, every session for the remainder of the month will be an extraordinary session. The Governor sets the agenda, and article IV of the state constitution dictates that Senate can only vote on those items he gives them permission to address. A member of either party, Democrat or Republican, can simply wander over to the other side and LET them have a quorum for the day. Important legislation that everyone agrees needs to be passed can be passed.

In this scenario, the Senate can keep fighting over who gets to call himself Majority Leader until next year -- but important legislation, thousands of jobs and the economy of the State would no longer be held hostage by the bickering factions.

Of course, this would mean earning the wrath of one party leader or another -- but all for the good of the people of New York, something that frustrated voters would certainly understand. Can we have a volunteer?

(Drafted with Eric Lane)


Bill said...

I don't see how that would resolve anything. The other side would still claim that it wasn't a legal session since it wasn't called by the majority leader.

Both sides clearly had a quorum last Tuesday, but the recognition by both the Democratic and Republican leadership is the only way this could end.

Ron said...

The current deadlock in the Senate in Albany could be cured by an innovative reading of the state constitution. Gov. Paterson ought to look to the wording of Article IV Section 3 and find authority there for his direct intervention in the Senate chamber to address the members and also to put to a vote each question.

The NY State Constitution provides for the governor to call extraordinary sessions at which time only questions posed by the governor might be considered (Art. IV, Sec. 3).

It is not a great stretch to imply that in extraordinary circumstances the governor therefore also possesses the powers to compel attendance of legislators--by troopers if necessary--for a duration of time the governor specifies, and to put the questions to a vote.

Without these implied powers the duty of the governor to utilize the extraordinary session is defeated by non-constitutionally mandated procedures, such as the current Senate demands for a recognized presiding officer and majority leader before actually voting on the governor's questions.

My suggestion means that the extraordinary session ought to be viewed as not the Assembly or Senate's "own proceedings" (Art. III, Sec. 9) but as a special proceeding directly authorized by the Constitution, as a functional hybrid of executive and legislative authority, to be used when normal legislative processes have broken down. Then the extraordinary session could become a fruitful mechanism to defeat legislative deadlock.

Unfortunately, such bold moves might be too much to ask from an unelected governor with low public approval rates and few political friends left in the legislature. However it might be worth the time of the press to remind the governor of his "duty" to get the votes counted and of the possibility to do so by finding the new authority outlined here.