Now that the great comedic drama of our state Senate has resolved itself I would like to make clear for the record what it was about and what it was not about.
It was not about legislation and the ability to pass legislation, just in case in your own mind you have confused the state Senate with the national Senate. In the national Senate, Democrats were eager to seat Al Franken from Minnesota because that would give them enough votes to block any possible Republican fillibuster. The idea was, with a strong majority they could pass the bills they wanted and thus affect public policy.
Albany is not like that. In the state Senate and indeed in the state Assembly there are few differences of public policy and little interest in public policy, apart from occasional high-profile issues like gay marriage. Most bills that come to the floor pass unanimously, without debate or discussion. What the Democrats and Republicans were doing these past few weeks was simply fighting over the spoils of office.
By long tradition in both houses of the Legislature, the majority party gets the bigger offices, the bigger staff, the highest paid titles, and most importantly the biggest share of pork to hand out to worthy organizations back home.
This year each house appropriated for itself $85 million to dispense in what they call member items, the lion’s share of that assigned to members of the majority party.
In the Senate, the newly empowered 32 Democrats claimed $77 million for themselves, leaving just $8 million for the 30 Republicans, which is pretty standard and very significant.
It means that if a local health clinic or fire district or ethnic fraternity wants $10,000, let’s say, to buy some new office equipment, it has a much better chance if it is represented by a majority member, which
for a long time meant a Democrat in the Assembly and a Republican in the Senate. That changed, of course, at the beginning of this year, when the Democrats achieved a majority in the Senate as well.
Now you need a Democrat, period.
It becomes a self-perpetuating system, with these member item grants used to bolster the member’s chances for re-election. The more he can hand out back home, the better the voters like it.
The local senator or assemblyman shows up at a ribbon-cutting as the great benefactor. He’s the one who delivered the money for the new roof, the new jogging track, the new computer. So naturally people remember him the next time around.
In the Assembly, to take just one example, long-time member of the Democratic majority Jack McEneny of Albany has about $660,000 to hand out this year, either solo or in cosponsorship with other members; freshman member of the Republican minority George Amedore of Schenectady County has $64,500.
That’s mainly what the fight was about in the Senate — who would get the big offices, who would get “lulus” for otherwise meaningless leadership titles, and who would get to hand out the pork with his name attached to it.
It is no accident that the pivotal player in the comedy, Sen. Pedro Espada of the Bronx, made his initial jump to the Republican side only after his confreres on the Democratic side had rejected his request for $2 million worth of pork, I guess on the grounds that such an amount for an organization of one’s own creation, which is what Espada had in mind, was a bit much even by Albany standards.
More from The Daily Gazette: