No Bills Passed NY Senate in January

Now under Democratic control, the New York's Senate didn't pass a single bill in January -- an unusual bout of inaction compared to past years.

Democrats took control of the state Senate in January for the first time in 43 years with a 32-30 majority, and it's the first time in at least 14 years that no bills were passed in the first month of the six-month session. Some Republicans have said it's fair to give Democrats a bit of time to get comfortable in their new role as the majority, but note that their patience could wane in February.

``I understand it's a huge undertaking, but it's February first, there's a lot of issues coming up the governor wants us to take on with the budget,'' said Sen. Tom Libous, a Broome County Republican.

The Democrats' transition was impeded by three dissident senators who said they might side with Republicans if they didn't get lucrative leadership posts and policy considerations they sought. A deal wasn't struck until Jan. 7, so months were lost that could have been spent on the transition.

In February, the Senate will be meeting four days a week instead of two or three. Libous said it would be a waste to summon lawmakers to Albany four days a week to gavel in and out of session without passing any bills.

``If there's no legislation to pass, that's just costing the taxpayers money,'' he said. ``There's no reason to be here four days if we aren't going to pass anything.''

Session costs taxpayers roughly $60,000 per day in $143 per diem payments and for travel and meal costs for lawmakers and their staffs. About $19,000 of that is Senate costs. Most lawmakers arrive the night before session and charge two days of expenses.

But Democrats argue that a lot of work is going on that, overall, will result in more meaningful change and promote involvement from both parties. They also have an unusual challenge of a massive midyear budget gap that Democrats said will require careful action.

``The former Senate majority used to pass a bunch of one-house bills in January that cost taxpayers time and money but did little to address the needs of the state,'' said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for Senate Democrats.

In January 2008 the Senate passed 38 bills, 20 of which became law after being passed in both houses _ 10 in January alone, under Republican leadership. At least as far back as 1995, which was as far as electronic records could provide, the Senate has passed bills in January.

But Democrats are taking other steps. Under their leadership the budget hearings started much earlier this year than in the past, said Sen. Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat who represents parts of the Bronx and southern Westchester County.

``I think you're going to see the majority of the bills that we're going to be passing are two-house bills,'' he said. ``It's real, it's not political posturing, it's getting work done and solving the problem.''

Senate Democrats also passed a resolution to make it easier for the minority party to participate in passing legislation by reforming the chamber's rules.

Now senators in the minority can co-sponsor any bill they support. In the past, a bill sponsor had to approve anyone who wanted to attach their support for a bill. While Republicans were in the majority it was their bills getting to the floor, so they had the power to exclude the minority from co-sponsoring a bill.

``When I was in the Assembly I passed a lot of bills, and I miss that,'' Klein said.

Democrats also are planning a more -- but not entirely -- equitable distribution of Senate resources.

``Previously the average Republican received an average budget of $500,000 while the Democrats in the minority received an average of $270,000,'' Shafran said.

Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, has pledged that all members will receive at least $350,000 in their budget for office space, staff and legislative expenses, regardless of party.

Above all, Democrats said they're focusing on an unprecedented $1.7 billion budget shortfall for this fiscal year and a looming $15 billion shortfall for 2009-2010. The Legislature has now missed the Feb. 1 target day that Gov. David Paterson had set for them to resolve the current budget shortfall.

The Democrats deserve a chance to make a smooth transition for now, said Elizabeth Lynam, deputy research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal and government watchdog group.

``If they go through next week with out any serious attempts to debate action on the budget, then taxpayers should begin to wonder what's happening with their legislators,'' Lynam said. ``There isn't any time to spare.''

Compared to the massive transition going on federally as President Barack Obama has taken power and started addressing the nation's fiscal crisis, New York could do better, she said.

``If the federal government can do it, we ought to be able to do it in New York state,'' she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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