Friday, August 14, 2009

Not Your Father's State Senate

The five-week leadership upheaval in the state Senate that began in early June finally settled down last month with a return to narrow majority control by the Democrats -- sort of. The Chalkboard has written much on the Senate struggle during this end-of-session chaos, unprecedented in any one's memory.

The new reality in the Senate is not what it may appear on paper, with a narrow 32-30 Democratic majority. In actuality, this has been, and remains, is a majority in name only.

Since last November's elections, when the Democratic members won their first majority in the state Senate after 43 years, the new majority has been fractured. The break in the majority became publicly visible by June when two of its members joined with Republicans to create a new, ephemeral coalition majority. Both members, of course, returned to the Democratic fold.

With the Democratic majority back in business, times nevertheless have changed. The Senate majority is led by three members: Senators Malcolm Smith, the Temporary President; John Sampson, as Conference Leader; and Pedro Espada, the Majority Leader. Also looming is Senator Jeff Klein, the Deputy Majority Leader who previously served skillfully as chairman of the Democrats' fund-raising committee.

Multiple leaders exist because there are multiple camps within the majority conference. This is far cry from the past when the Senate was ruled by a single leader with the central staff reporting to him. In fact, only three senators had served as majority leader in a 35-year span, from 1973 until last summer. Each of whom ruled, for better or for worse, with undisputed control. That allowed for decisions to be made centrally and more or less efficiently.

Similarly, the state Assembly, under Speaker Sheldon Silver, continues to operate this way, as he has been in this powerful position since 1994.

The New Senate Reality
Today's state Senate, with its divided majority, will move more slowly on deciding policy and passing bills, as it will be an ongoing challenge to come to a 32-member consensus on issues. Gone are the days when a leader can make a decision and make it stick in the conference even when several senators may not agree. The New York City school governance legislation is one glaring example. This important bill got done, eventually, but it wasn't pretty.

So, is this a bad thing?

One of the favorite soundbites of so-called good government groups has been to decry "three men in a room" (i.e., the Governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader) deciding everything, with knee-jerk legislators dutifully going along. That charge was never quite true. In today's Senate, it's largely gone.

Senate action on issues will need to occur the old fashion, democratic way: getting a majority of its 62 members one at a time from both sides of the aisle since neither side, especially the majority, will necessarily be in lock-step with leadership on various issues. Additionally, the leadership itself inevitably will not agree on many issues. This makes the work of legislative staff and outside lobbyists more of a challenge, and will slow things down.

Democracy can be a slow and frustrating, but that can often be a good thing since more consideration can be given to do the right thing. That means the new Senate, and how it operates, can be an improvement as well.

Time will tell.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.