After Espada Flips Again, Senate Actually Does Work

The 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 initially threatening 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, at first the standstill wasn't. Republicans decided to slow the voting process because they were furious Democrats didn't include Senate rules reforms on the agenda. Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, of Long Island, said the GOP objected to the Democrats' plan to pass pork barrel spending — also known as member items, money that lawmakers can take back to their districts for pet projects.

After an hour of closed-door discussion, member items were removed from the agenda and both sides developed the framework for a rules reform agreement. Both will likely be taken up next week. Both sides said the rules changes will give individual senators more power to move bills out of committees and to the floor for a vote, among other reforms.

Most of the bills passed late Thursday and early Friday were for local taxes that would keep local governments funded and running.

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.

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.

"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 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 will serve them well and increase the power of individual Senators.

"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."

"We are definitely going to reform the state Senate like it's never been reformed before," said Democratic Conference Leader Sen. John Sampson, of Brooklyn.

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."

The self-described three amigos — Sens. Espada, Ruben Diaz and Hiram Monserrate — said the end of the standoff is a victory for Latinos, providing them a greater voice.

"This is a great achievement for our community. The greatest achievement our community has ever gotten," said Diaz, a Bronx Democrat and leader in the Latino community.

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.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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