You call this a Senate?

YUUUCH! Just mentioning the state Senate and all the inane squabbling going on there is enough to make any sane person want to take a long, hot shower with lots of soap.

   If it weren’t so serious it would sound like a script for a screwball comedy. The Democrats, who won a two-seat majority in the Senate last fall were barely able to agree who would lead them because a handful of Democrats from New York City threatened to defect to the GOP if they didn’t get the powerful posts they coveted. Their tantrums got them most of what they wanted, but then two of them defected anyway, and early this month those two Democrats helped Republicans stage what’s been called a “coup,” taking over the Senate with a one-vote majority and installing as president of that body none other than one of the dissident Democrats.

   No sooner had they done that than the other Democratic defector decided that, well, he really was a Democrat, and he went slithering back to his party—which was apparently glad to have him—leaving each side with an equal number of votes: a deadlock. Are you following this?

The legislature has already adopted the state budget, arguably its most important task of the year. So it’s tempting to imagine that the public is better off if both sides keep toothlessly snarling at each other rather than passing new laws that screw up the lives and bank accounts of the people they represent. But it isn’t that simple.

   If the economy doesn’t show considerable improvement in the next few months, Governor David Paterson anticipates lawmakers may have to make additional spending cuts. In the meantime, all the bills that the Senate normally rushes through at the end of the session are on hold. Forget for a moment about compelling social issues like whether to authorize same-sex marriage; just think about the money.

   In 2007 Columbia County generated about $30 million in sales tax revenue. That money comes from the 8% sales tax, which is split evenly between the state and the county—4% for Albany and 4% for us. But by law the county can charge only 3% unless the legislature approves a 1% add-on. Based on that math, the county could lose almost $4 million in revenue if the Senate can’t get its act together and pass so-called sales tax extension legislation.

   That could happen if the pigheaded deadlock continues. And guess who will pick up the slack? Either the county would have to make drastic cuts in services or county property tax bills would begin to look like the ones that come from our school districts. Or both.

   Apportioning blame for the current situation leads to the same dead end that has paralyzed the Senate. But this mess has highlighted some long-term changes in state government.

   In the past the GOP-controlled Senate has cast itself as the protector of Upstate concerns, the only thing standing between farmers, rural communities and small cities on one side and New York City interests on the other. Though Republicans lost control of the Senate last November they managed to grab it back for a few days earlier this month. But how did they stage their coup? They recruited the two most legally challenged members of the Democratic majority, both of whom represent… New York City.

   The balance of power in the state has shifted decisively, and it will take more than parliamentary pranks like the ones the GOP just pulled in Albany to preserve the political clout of Upstate senators.

   What makes the situation so odd is that the GOP made its ill-considered move just as the Senate Democratic leadership was in the process of falling apart from internal divisions and the smarmy deals it made with the same tainted lawmakers wooed by the Republican leaders. Go figure.

   Things could get worse. But there is an alternative. Republican senators like Steve Saland (41st) could end the chaos in Albany with a coup of their own. If they quietly replaced the GOP leaders who staged this desperate rebellion and then brokered a compromise with the Democrats, they would be seen as the people who put state government back together. In the process they just might end up assuring a future for two-party government in this state.



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