Commentary & Opinion
12:08 pm
Mon November 26, 2012

Liz Benjamin - Leadership Crisis in NY Senate

Liz Benjamin Commentary 11/26

We are now almost three weeks past the November 6th elections, and there's still no resolution in sight to the leadership crisis in the state Senate.

All eyes today are on Ulster County - the fifth and final county in the new 46th Senatorial District to count its paper ballots. After Montgomery County completed its count this weekend, Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk trailed Republican Assemblyman George Amedore by 920 votes. The outcome of this race could very well decide who controls the upper chamber.

A win by Amedore would give the Republicans an even 32 members, regardless of which side the four-person Independent Democratic Conference ultimately picks. But let’s be realistic here. It's probably going to be a very tight race that very well could come down to a handful of votes. And if that's the case, this whole mess will likely end up the subject of a protracted legal battle.

Both sides are due back in court on Wednesday.

Of course, even if the Democrats do win the 46th, they'll still need the IDC to return to their conference in order to have enough votes to control the chamber. In a series of pre-Thanksgiving statements, Klein made it clear he has no intention of joining forces with anyone that doesn't enable the IDC remain as he puts it, a "permanent" third conference. 

What Klein wants is a coalition government. And this isn’t the first time he has floated the idea. During the Senate coup Klein was one of several senators who proposed a bipartisan power-sharing agreement. Under this plan, the Senate presidency would have rotated between the two sides on a daily basis. The Senate’s floor leader would have also alternated. And a six-member committee, with each side having three votes, would have been charged with determining by a majority vote which bills would go the floor. The plan died after the Republicans insisted the Democrats recognize their coup starting colleagues - Pedro Espada Jr. - as president pro tempore, which was the title the GOP used to lure him across the aisle in the first place.

Here's where the whole power-sharing thing gets tricky. There are literally hundreds of references to the "temporary president of the Senate" in the state Constitution and in numerous laws, the majority of which deal with appointments to various state posts. The Senate can't organize without a temporary president, and can't spend any money, either.

The senator who holds this title chairs the powerful Rules Committee - the last stop for bills before they're sent to the floor - appoints Senate committee chairpersons and members, and is an ex-officio member of all committees and temporary state commissions. And then, of course, there's the little matter of succession. If both the governor and lieutenant governor are unable to perform their duties, the temporary president is next in line to run the state. Traditionally, the same person holds both the temporary president and majority leader titles. That's how it was under Joe Bruno. That's how it is under the Republicans’ current leader, Dean Skelos.

But both the Republicans and the Democrats proved during the '09 coup that those duties can be divided up between two people. The Democrats got Espada to return to their side by agreeing to make him majority leader. Sources familiar with the IDC's machinations tell me its members have done extensive research on how the Senate might function as a so-called coalition, with three factions instead of two.

So, might there be a Majority Leader Klein in Albany's future? It's too soon to tell as long as the 46th SD remains in play. But this much is clear: The IDC is treading very carefully at the moment, hoping to somehow preserve relationships on both sides of the aisle, along with the future political ambitions of its members, especially Klein himself.

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