Sunday, June 14, 2009

Coup in New York Senate

The spectacular New York State Capitol building stands glorious and stately. It’s a building to be proud of but civic prides stops at the magnificent doors. Inside the halls feel slimy with the corruption of “pay to play”.

As of January, Republicans had 40 consecutive years of majority in the NY Senate during which New York’s “Empire State” image decayed. Democrats took over in January and several bills to benefit the general public made it into committees, a discussion series that was meant to culminate with a celebration of democracy – public hearings that would send bills to Assembly and Senate floors.

On Monday the Assembly Standing Committee on Insurance and the Senate Standing Committee on Judiciary met publically. On Tuesday, buses from around the state were set to bring citizen groups to several more hearings when legislative directives supported by up to 70% of the state’s voters were expected to be passed to the full floor with probability that they would become laws.

Now forget that for-the-people stuff. Instead, a Florida billionaire strode the Capitol’s halls making arrangements with New York’s legislators, an entourage of suits jogging in his money-power wake.

Tom Golisano, founder of Paychex, a NY business worth billions, said that New York’s tax system was too high and he moved to Florida. Even though he moved, he reportedly poured money into legislative campaigns to change the leadership in the Senate where Republicans have led the agenda and created tax codes for decades.

According to the Buffalo News, Golisano was dissatisfied with tax rates and with the staffing of the Senate’s Buffalo office so, reportedly, Golisano tugged on his financial ropes to bring politicians to his way of thinking leading to a coup in the New York Senate.

Golisano was photographed with Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate who announced they would caucus with the Republicans. Why is this a big deal? There are 30 Republican and 32 Democratic senators - a majority margin of 2. With Espada and Monserrate crossing the aisle to the Republican side, the majority structure flipped. The majority party chooses who will chair each committee and those chairs choose what legislation to consider and what to send to the shredder. The majority party can kill bills by simply not allowing them to come to the floor.

It is also no small matter that the majority party draws the lines for legislative districts, a deed regularly done with regard not to community lines but to party lines thereby ensuring the reelection of the majority party (gerrymandering). Republicans have controlled those lines for the last 70 years.

Changing the majority meant changing all committee chairs and cancelling all the hearings scheduled for this week “for the people.”

According to officials of Citizen Action NY, corporate lobbyists outside the Senate Chamber cheered as the Republicans declared control of the Senate on Monday. Republican control likely signaled job security for them with the “Pay to Play” culture in Albany for lobbyists and bad deals for millions of work-a-day people.
The busloads of citizens took their meeting rooms in a spirit of anger rather than excitement over being involved in the political process. About 100 people from Citizen Action NY protested outside the office of Pedro Espada just after Golisano exited.

News crews from all major stations filmed the group and recorded statements, both prepared and impassioned off-the-cuff, while the majority of citizens stood behind them holding placards and wearing tape over their mouths to illustrate that the voices of the people have been cut from the process. After the statements, they tore the tape off and chanted “Golisano pays, Pedro plays.”

Citizen Action of NY then occupied the office of Hiram Monserrate until he met with them. Monserrate, while he has personal legal problems outside the legislature, had worked with several citizen and labor groups to sponsor the legislative measures that were to have been ushered out of committee that day. Monserrate told Citizen Action NY that he would work with the Democratic Party to try to find a resolution to the stalemate and on Wednesday he refused to caucus with Republicans instead meeting with Democratic senators.

For the rest of the week there were protests in Buffalo, Rochester and Albany and negotiations among lawyers for both parties. As of Friday, the legality of the coup remains under discussion, government work has halted and those who hoped that clean elections would come to New York are once more disappointed.

On Monday, Hiram Monserrate returned to the Democratic Caucus resulting in a 31-31 tie thus sending the decision of leadership to the courts.

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