Legislative Lessons for a New Governor

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The regularly scheduled session of the New York State Legislature ended this year with no last-minute deals, a lot of unresolved issues and bitter recriminations from Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

It wasn’t that much different from legislative sessions past, except that in some years lawmakers are able to cobble together more in the way of 11th hour agreements. The bitterness is generally part of the package for whatever matters weren’t resolved.

Except, of course, that Spitzer as a first-term governor had promised to change everything about how Albany operates. That might have produced visions in some people’s minds of a well-oiled legislative machine proceeding in a productive and orderly fashion toward the end of its work.

That’s not quite how it went down. The press reports paint a picture of a more typical frenzy of down-to-the-wire negotiating, mostly among the three top state leaders, on a wide-ranging array of topics, from state rules on public construction projects to nutrition in schools to a New York City plan to charge commuters to alleviate congestion in Manhattan.

In the end, the leaders – Spitzer, Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver – made agreements on none of the issues that any of them had made a priority. Even some agreements that had already been worked out, such reform of those construction rules, came apart.

Bruno pointed the finger at Spitzer, saying the governor was “obsessed” with reforming state rules in financing political campaigns – in a way that Bruno refuses to go along with — and that held everything up.

Spitzer denied the charge but continued to push hard for campaign-finance reform. He’s now traveling the state with a “Where’s Waldo”-style presentation, asking voters to think about where their senators are (not in Albany) and press them to come back to the Capitol to work. Bruno says the Senate will return in mid-July.

And what about Silver? He stood rather quietly on the sidelines of this fight and seemed OK with letting the NYC traffic plan twist in the wind, since he wasn’t completely on board with that anyway. He might have enjoyed the break from years past when he was the one duking it out with Republican Gov. George Pataki as the session wound to a close.

New Yorkers will probably never know the exact sequence of the breakdown and who said what in the back room that blew everything up, so we’ll never be able to accurately pin blame. But does it matter? The general storyline seems clear enough: Spitzer and Bruno clashed bitterly enough over enough issues to bring progress to a standstill.

It might not be such a bad thing. Those sessions when a bundle of big bills were linked together and passed in a rush were always a little scary. It was just like the frenzy around the passing the state budget, where rank-and-file legislators were scrambling to figure out what it was they were voting on, and errors in the legislation would sometimes come back to haunt everyone.

At least this year the leaders parted ways over genuinely important issues and each was forced to publicly state his position. In the past, Bruno has been able to sidestep the campaign-finance issue. This year, because of the high profile Spitzer put on the issue, Bruno had to confront it. Yes, he tried to brush it aside by saying voters don’t care how campaigns are financed, but he also had to employ the “campaign giving is free speech” argument to defend the high limits and loopholes in the law.

It can’t go on this way forever, of course. The leaders have to learn to disagree passionately over some things, and work to forge compromise on the rest, or all progress will continue to grind to a halt. It would help if they didn’t poison the atmosphere with personal attacks about such things as Spitzer’s money or Bruno’s summer schedule.

Spitzer may be a steamroller, but Bruno has made it clear he’s not about to lie down for him. It doesn’t seem that Spitzer has figured out what to do about that. One minute he’s strongly confronting Bruno over budget issues, then he gives in on most of them as the April 1 deadline nears. Perhaps regretting that choice, he stuck to his guns as the session ended. Spitzer has to find a middle way – voters don’t want to wait for Democrats to take over the Senate (they’re two seats away, but it could still take years) for anything to get done in Albany.