The Extraordinary Failure of Paterson’s Senate Plan

ALBANY—This was supposed to be David Paterson’s moment to step into the fray created by the State Senate leadership struggle and restore working government to New York. Instead, his attempts to force Albany back to work have prompted the Senate to spiral toward a new level of chaos, partisan rancor and legal purgatory.

“I’ve been a public servant here for over 20 years,” Paterson told reporters who gathered in the Red Room around 5 p.m. yesterday. “And what I’ve seen in the last two weeks from the Senate is disgusting. The Senate’s inaction is a dereliction of duty. They have clearly forgotten who they serve.”

Exactly two hours earlier, the chamber crossed into new territory when two competing factions—each 31 strong and claiming the rightful title to the leadership of the 62-seat chamber—held session. Each side claimed a full quorum, meaning the bills they passed with quick procedural roll call votes were legitimate and unanimous. Each side adjourned its session. Each had a gavel, though the Democrats’ gavel was bigger.

Paterson’s stated reasoning was that he hoped that a non-controversial and necessary active list would entice senators to their desks, and that they would actually pass the bills before them so they could be signed into law. He also may have considered the session a stick to force a bipartisan operating agreement.

It failed. Talks broke down, spectacularly, around noon. Democrats walked into the Senate chamber, taking positions on the dais, and staying close to their seats. Around 2:30, the Republicans entered. Security staffers loyal to Democrats prevented the Republicans from taking a position on the dais, so they gaveled into a regular session from the floor before leaving, allowing Democrats to convene an extraordinary session.

“I don’t think we’re taking a formal position on it, we’re just noting for the record that it’s very bizarre,” said Peter Kiernan, a counsel to the governor.

The Senate Democrats were fuming. Many legislators and staffers griped about how Paterson handled the situation. They said they didn’t receive the legislation that he asked them to act on until a few hours before the session was to start, and that then, it was improperly formatted.

“I find it a little puzzling that Monday, when asked by both sides to have an extra day, he said no. And now we’re passing his bills, and he’s, you know, holding press conferences,” Senator Craig Johnson, a Long Island Democrat, told me.

I asked Johnson if Paterson bungled things. He paused for 10 seconds before answering.

“I think that there was a lack of preparation. I have found, in my experience as an attorney, that when both sides seek an adjournment to try and resolve something, a judge likes to grant extra time.”

Paterson has called another extraordinary session for Wednesday, with several items on the agenda: a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, a spending cap he has proposed, a bill extending access to health care for uninsured adults under 29, and the farm workers bill of rights.

Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. was openly flirting with Republicans at the mention of the marriage issue, which he vociferously opposes. (He later proclaimed his loyalty to the Democratic side.)

Tuesday night, it seemed Democrats might not take up the legislation Paterson puts forward not just for political reasons, but also for legal ones. (They called a press conference for 8 p.m., then canceled it, citing the legal discussions.)

It was also revealed over the course of Tuesday that the enacted bills cannot become law, because they were not acted on by both houses of the Legislature in the same session. Extraordinary sessions are separate from the regular session, so with no ability to introduce companion bills in the Assembly, anything done in the session would be worthless. Lawyers for the Senate Democrats said late Tuesday they were exploring this issue, and whether senators should take the floor Wednesday. Republicans, meanwhile, called for binding arbitration to settle the dispute, and invited elected Democrats, including Andrew Cuomo, to support them.

Paterson’s lawyer Kiernan insisted that extraordinary bills could be substituted for Assembly bills and then signed into law, provided the bills originated in extraordinary session.

Diaz reacted with characteristic acidity: “Much to our surprise and amazement, Governor Paterson called for special session and was not ready to present any bill to the Senate for debate nor vote. Why is Governor Paterson wasting the taxpayers’ money and peoples’ time? Today’s session has been another incompetent act of Governor Paterson. Governor Paterson had the look of failure on his face when he made his statement yesterday.  Now I understand why.”

As Democratic lawyers explained their concerns to reporters, Barbara Bartoletti, the longtime representative of the League of Women Voters, shook her head.

“This is more than a mess,” she said. “This has completely broken down any semblance of representative democracy. This is about power and the money that goes with it. So I say: a pox on both their houses.”

The Extraordinary Failure of Paterson’s Senate Plan