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The Senate Must Get Back To Work

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In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt, the New York State Senate has become a national punch line. But the consequences of this ill-conceived power grab are anything but funny.

As you have probably heard by now, on June 8 -- as the Senate began a historic end-of-session push to pass reform legislation on a wide variety of fundamental progressive issues -- the Republicans led by Dean Skelos and Pedro Espada, Jr. attempted an illegal and self-serving power grab which has thrown the Senate into complete deadlock.

The Senate is now divided in a 31-31 tie between the Democratic and Republican Conferences.

Clearly, the only way to resolve this impasse is through cooperation and compromise. That's why my colleagues and I in the Democratic conference crafted an authentic bipartisan operating proposal to bring both parties together and get the Senate back to work until the end of the regularly scheduled session. Last week, we submitted the proposal to the Espada Republicans who quickly rejected it and left the negotiating table.

The people of New York are outraged. I'm outraged, too.

Marriage equality, the Reproductive Health Act, paid family leave, tax relief for the middle class, the Crime Gun Identification Act, the Farm Workers Bill of Rights, mortgage and pension fraud legislation, school governance reform and other essential bills must be addressed this year. All of these important agenda items are being held hostage by politicians who are more interested in perks and titles than doing what's right for the people of New York.

In addition to these critical legislative issues, New York City and counties across the state could face serious consequences, including bankruptcy, if the Republicans continue to reject a fair governing agreement. Since many municipalities need the Senate to approve budget changes, millions of people and small businesses will suffer because of their political games.

But through this chaos comes an opportunity for progressive change.

Governor David A. Paterson has called for a special session to get the Senate back on track, and my Democratic colleagues and I are renewing our call for a fair, bipartisan solution to this stalemate. We've issued a proposal that would last until the end of the special session.

Here are some of the proposed rules:

  • The Presiding Officer of the Senate shall be designated by mutual agreement between the Democratic Conference and the Republican Conference;
  • Floor Leaders would alternate daily (from a different party than that day's President of the Senate); So, on each day that the Presiding Officer is named by the Democratic Conference, the Floor Leader for that day will be named by the Republican Conference and vice versa;
  • A six-member Senate Conference Committee (three Democrats, three Republicans) would work together to determine what legislation reaches the floor;
  • The parties agree that the only matters to come before the Senate in this special session are to be designated by the Governor, and that neither party may attempt to call a regular session of the Senate before, during or after the special session; and
  • No Senator shall make or attempt to make a tie-breaking vote that can only be cast by the Lieutenant Governor.

Just to be clear -- while the Democratic Conference has offered to temporarily put aside the dispute over the election of the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, we are not accepting the legitimacy of the purported election of Pedro Espada to serve in this post, a heartbeat away from the governorship. Period.

At least six states have faced similarly tied legislatures in recent years, and agreements reached to overcome deadlocks have often reflected the very best efforts of transparency and fairness that this nation and its legislative bodies can hope to achieve -- entirely without regard to partisan advantage.

So far, it's been clear that the Senate Republicans are interested only in partisan advantage -- as they've rejected our offers of compromise, offering nothing substantive in response.

There is too much at stake to let political games hijack the agenda, and we have an obligation to get back to work. The Governor can -- and must -- call us back as often as it takes. It would be absolutely irresponsible to allow the business of the state to remain unfinished as a result of this shameless power grab.