Governmental gridlock is New York way of life

Albany system continues because it's hard to get voters mad over inaction

October 28, 2002|By Richard Perez-Pena | Richard Perez-Pena,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ALBANY, N.Y. - A 2-year-old federal law withholds money from states that fail to adopt tougher drunken driving laws, lowering the legal blood alcohol limit from .10 to .08. Most states have complied, but not New York, an omission that has cost the state $30 million so far.

New York's inaction is odd, since Gov. George E. Pataki supports the change, as do Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker; Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader; and solid majorities in both houses. But when Pataki was asked in June whether his meetings with legislative leaders had moved them closer to a new drunken-driving law, he looked surprised and said, "It hasn't come up."

Through the six months the Legislature met this year, Senate and Assembly leaders barely discussed the matter. Each house passed its own .08 bill, and each refused to compromise or vote on the other's bill, and they never convened a conference committee to resolve their differences.

Far from being an isolated case, this kind of gridlock has been Albany's chronic affliction for more than a decade, through Democratic and Republican governors. Because this is an election season, some criticism about the problem has been aimed at Pataki. But the legislative atrophy is the making of both parties. It has grown steadily worse.

All the synonyms

"When people start writing about New York, they tend to go get a thesaurus and find all the synonyms for dysfunctional," said James J. Lack, a Republican state senator from Suffolk County. As a past president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, he gained an understanding of other states that left him chagrined about his own.

"Things take longer and are more difficult to accomplish than in just about any other state," he said. "And there's no question that it's gotten more severe." When important deals are struck at last, it is usually with a secrecy befitting matters of national security, with Pataki, Bruno and Silver meeting privately and disclosing as little as possible to the public - the much-derided "three men in a room" system.

It was that system that Pataki once vowed to end. A former legislator, he ran in 1994 as the reformer who would cure Albany's sclerosis, promising to get things done, and to put an end to the record string of late budgets. Now, as he runs for a third term, his opponents have tried to make gridlock a campaign issue and use it against him.

They have found, however, how hard it is to get voters worked up over Albany's inaction - one reason the inaction continues.

Before he dropped out of the Democratic race for governor, Andrew M. Cuomo repeatedly told audiences, "This is a government that is unique in its dysfunction," but he gained no traction. Tom Golisano, the Independence Party nominee, has used similar themes, but polls show him having only about 17 percent of voter support.

This year New York was the last state, by far, to finish the once-a-decade task of redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries. The year's legislative achievements - giving New York City mayors more control of the schools, and a mandate that insurers pay for cancer screening and contraceptives for women - followed years of negotiation.

This year Albany even violated the venerable rule of thumb that legislators find ways to get things done in even-numbered years, when they all have to stand for re-election. At least 2002 had a marked improvement in tone over 2001 and some other recent sessions, when lawmakers' public name-calling made the Capitol seem more like a sandbox, and when Pataki, a Republican, and Silver, a Democrat, went weeks without talking to each other.

Time and again, bills gain the support of clear majorities in both houses but never go to a vote in one house or the other, because one of the three leaders stops it.

For years, Bruno, a Republican, has not allowed a Senate vote on a gay-rights bill, and Silver has not permitted an Assembly vote on banning the procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion. This year, Republican senators said, Pataki played a central role in persuading the Senate not to vote on popular bills to raise the minimum wage and prohibit smoking in restaurants; aides to the governor said he applied no such pressure. Silver blocked votes on anti-terrorism bills that the governor proposed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even more striking are the issues, like drunken driving, where the three controlling factions generally agree but one, two or all three refuse to compromise.

"Everyone's gotten to the point where their standard position is `I'm going to hold out for what I want, instead of taking the half that's being offered,'" said Lester M. Shulklapper, a prominent lobbyist since the 1970s. "I've never seen it this bad."

The Senate refuses to consider a drunken-driving bill unless it also increases penalties for violators. The Assembly refuses to consider changing the penalties.

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