The print and electronic media have been bursting with post-election analysis – why Obama won, the lessons for Republicans, predictions for the future, the impact on potential immigration legislation, the fiscal cliff, and on and on.
The New York State legislature, to be polite, does not have a sterling reputation. The Brennan Center at NYU has been a consistent critic .
In 2006 and 2007, most standing committees met infrequently or not at all. There were almost no hearings on major legislation. Not a single major bill was the subject of a detailed committee report. Leadership maintained near total control over what bills reached the floor. And on the floor, there was little substantive debate; every bill brought to the floor for a vote in either chamber passed.
In the past four years to call the NYS Senate dysfunctional is to give dysfunctional organizations a bad name.
From time immemoriam the Republicans have controlled the NYS 62 -member Senate and the Democrats the 150-member Assembly. Governors, whether Democrat or Republican had to negotiate between Scylla and Carybdis. The “three men in a room” ultimately traded this for that and agreed upon state budgets and other legislation.
Before you throw up your hands in disgust listen to James Madison, 225 year ago in Federalist # 10,
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
The “good government” types may wring their hands and gnash teeth, the shenanigans of the legislative process are part of our democracy.
Speaker Silver, firmly guides his contentious conference. While the Democrats vastly outnumber the Republicans in the Assembly they have widely divergent interests. From New York City to poverty-stricken upstate cities, to affluent suburbs to rural farming districts, divided by economics, by geography, by race and ethnicity, both liberal and conservative Silver has to keep his membership in line. In closed door conference meetings the members vent … plead for consideration of some legislative proposal that benefits their district. Eleven thousand bills were introduced in the last term, many without Senate counterparts. The path from introduction to signing is tortuous.
Silver is masterful at listening to and responding to his at times fractious conference. Most votes are along party lines, occasionally a Democrat will stray, and it is almost unheard of for a leadership sponsored bill to fail.
In 2008, for the first time in decades, the Democrats appeared to gain control of the Senate. They immediately began to self-destruct as the “four amigos,” Carl Kruger, Pedro Espada and company switched to the Republicans in exchange perks and power. I will spare you the intra-party machinations. In 2010 the Republicans, by the barest of majorities regained control of the Senate (32-30) and four Democrats, led by Jeff Klein (Bronx) and Diane Savino (Staten Island) and two upstaters split with the dems and formed an independent caucus. (Senate: 32-26-4)
In spite of cries for non-partisan redistricting, the Governor decried partisan redistricting and quietly did nothing to prevent the parties from drawing favorable lines in each house. The Republicans added a 63rd district and drew lines which appeared to guarantee a return to power.
Lo and behold, although the vote count is not completed it appears that the Democrats will emerge with a thin majority, on paper.
Simcha Felder, a newly elected Democratic from an ultra-orthodox district in Brooklyn and the same Malcolm Smith who was deposed as Democratic leader, and the Klein-lead independent caucus are either threatening to jump to the Republicans and/or enter into some sort of power sharing arrangement.
In words of James Madison, “… more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
The legislature may return for a “lame duck” session to give the themselves a raise (they haven’t had a raise since 1999) if they can gain agreement with the Governor on a range of other issues – stronger ethics rules and who knows what else … In 1999 Pataki “traded” a raise for the support of the charter school law.
In the first week in January the legislature will return to Albany and listen to the Governor’s State of the State message before both houses and a few thousand carefully invited guests who will cheer on cue. It will be an upbeat speech with frequent references to the deprecations of Hurricane Sandy, the rebuilding of destroyed lives and homes, and hints about legislative priorities.
The first three months are usually devoted to the budget with a constitutional deadline of April 1, the last two years it was an actually a firm date, in prior years negotiations dragged on for many months.
Oh yes, and the impact on schools and education:
* School District Budgets.
The imposition of the 2% property tax cap was applauded by the NY Post and the Daily News, the Republicans and conservatives around the state: the impact has been devastating. About 200 school districts, low tax, rural, small, are teetering on bankruptcy. These districts are in Republican areas – will the Governor and the legislature address the crisis?
* Teacher Evaluation Law.
While the law will only go into effect in the “approved” districts this year the pushback around the state is enormous – not from the teacher union – from superintendents and school districts who complain about the cost and the complexity. Who pays the continuing costs after Race to the Top dollars cease? What happens if school districts and unions fail to meet the January 17th deadline? Will the Governor/legislature intervene or allow districts to wallow?
* The Dreamer Bill and other immigrant issues.
The Senate Republicans refused to address the bill and the Governor did not make it a priority. The recent election results may give the bill a push – especially with 50,000 Hispanic teens reaching the age of 18 each month.
* School Closings, Charter Schools and the NYC Governance Law.
As charter schools begin to open in mid-sized cities around the state and funnel money and abler students away from public schools a legislative pushback begins. Will legislators take a look at the charter school law and add a section on the impact on existing schools as a pre-condition for approval? Will the legislature continue to allow local school districts to make school closing decisions? Will the legislature take a look at the NYC School Governance law before the next Mayor arrives? Or wait until her/she is in place? Will Bloomberg dollars and influence wane as his days in office sunset?
Politics makes for strange bedfellows (and strange bedfellows make for funny politics).
Thomas Jefferson, the author of our Declaration of Independence, third president and an iconic leader besmirched his opponents,(See NYT review of new Jefferson biography here) Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, through libelous planted newspaper articles, and, fathered children by Sally Hemmings, his teenage slave.
At least these days if you anger the leadership you don’t have to sip from a cup of hemlock – yet.