New York’s Senate stalemate ended Thursday as it started 31 days ago, with a freshman Democrat convulsing the 62-seat house by switching sides and getting a powerful leadership post in the majority.
But it took less than 30 minutes on the Senate floor for partisan fights to emerge, with Republicans demanding two-hour debates on each of more than 100 noncontroversial bills.
Bronx Sen. Pedro Espada’s return to the Democratic conference gives Democrats a 32-30 majority for the first time since the June 8 coup. As part of the deal, Espada took the title of Senate majority leader.
Espada’s move came after Democratic Gov. David Paterson’s decision to appoint a lieutenant governor to preside over the Senate, giving his party the upper hand in a chamber that’s been divided 31-31.
“It was never about power, but about empowerment,” Espada said at a news conference.
While the stalemate was over, the standstill wasn’t. Republican Leader Sen. Dean Skelos said Democrats assured them that Senate rules reforms would be on the agenda, but it wasn’t on the schedule.
Democratic staffers said they didn’t know of a reform promise.
“Once again, Senate Republicans have put themselves first and the people last,” said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for Democrats.
Republicans are angry that pork barrel spending was on the agenda. Democrats say they were set to give Republicans twice as much as they planned — about $15 million out of $85 million for pet projects. The two sides were negotiating late Thursday.
“They promised to do rules reforms tonight basically what we’ve done in the past and they just reneged on it,” Skelos said.
“They’re a bunch of phonies,” he said. “They don’t want to do rules reforms, and all they care about are their member items.”
Most bills were for local taxes that would keep local governments funded and running.
Paterson estimated that the state’s municipalities lost as much as $150 million during the conflict — most of it missed sales tax revenue — including $60 million in New York City.
For more than a month, the Senate’s paralysis stalled action on mayoral control of New York City’s schools, taxing authority in some municipalities and economic development programs.
“Today really is 31 days of chaos ending,” said Hiram Monserrate, a one-time dissident whose pending felony assault charge divided Republicans and Democrats early in the session. “Judge us not on what has occurred over the last 31 days ... but judge us on what we do with this extraordinary opportunity.”
Republicans initially accepted their return to the minority, where they were for the past six months for the first time since 1965, but still tried to claim some victory. They say the reforms adopted during the June 8 coup — which gives the minority equal resources and power to move bills — will serve them well and is an improvement over their status before the uprising.
“Upstate is going to be a player,” said Republican Sen. George Maziarz of Niagara County. “We have a conference of 30 strong and with these reforms. ... We won’t be rolled over.”
But Democratic Conference Leader Sen. John Sampson, of Brooklyn, said everything is under review and it could be two months before the new majority passes reforms.
“We are definitely going to reform the state Senate like it’s never been reformed before,” he said.
Rank-and-file Democrats welcomed Espada back. That was a contrast to the name-calling of the past five weeks, when many Democrats said they would never serve under Espada in a leadership position. Others called him a thug and turncoat.
“I don’t think any of us have to accept everybody with open arms,” said Sen. Neil Breslin, an Albany Democrat. “He has a right to be in the Democratic conference as an elected Democrat.”
When asked if it was hypocritical for Democrats to accept Espada as one of their own after calling him a criminal, Breslin said, “There is a level of that.”
Republican Leader Dean Skelos, of Long Island, predicted that within six months Democrats will again be plagued by infighting and will look to the united Republicans for help.
“They have factions there that hate each other,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, because ... they’re supposed to be tolerant to each others opinions and there are so many factions there that would like to — quite honestly — slit the other factions’ throats.”
The regular session ended June 22.
Despite landing back in the minority, Republicans argue they’ve helped their constituents by insisting on reforms to give every New Yorker a voice in the chamber. They said any change couldn’t have happened without their actions.
“I’m very disappointed, but in my mind this was never about a power grab, but about reform,” said Republican Sen. Thomas Libous of Broome County.
Paterson said being in the majority wouldn’t be an all-consuming goal if it was just about bringing substantive legislation to the floor, instead of the perks that come with the job.
“I’ve always thought there wouldn’t be so much fighting about who’s in the majority if it wasn’t [about] wealth,” Paterson said.