In the space of three weeks, 24 Republicans in the state senate voted for and against the same state ethics bill. And in the madhouse of Albany, almost no one noticed.
When the ethics bill passed 59 to 1 in late January, 28 GOP state senators voted for it, with one Democrat voting against it and two Republicans abstaining. When the senate sustained Governor David Paterson’s veto this week, two dozen Republicans voted to kill the bill they’d just voted to pass, joined by one of the Republicans who abstained on the January vote. Only four Republican supporters of the bill in January stuck with it in February, voting to override Paterson. This sudden and extraordinary switch left Democrats far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override. Unless a miracle happens, the GOP swing has ended the prospects of reform this year.
With so much Albany scandal to keep up with these days, you may have forgotten that it was the trial of the longtime Republican senate leader Joe Bruno — now convicted of abusing his office — that sparked the reform drive in the first place. Leave it to Bruno’s buddies still in the chamber to figure out a way to pay cynical homage to him.
Using David Paterson as their tool and rationale, Dean Skelos and the Republican minority have so muddied the waters that they can pretend in this year’s fiercely competitive senate elections that they were for a sweeping ethics package without ever having to actually live with one. They voted for ethics legislation, as John Kerry would put it, before they voted against it. Paterson, who stonewalled Democratic leaders for months rather than negotiate a bill with them, met with Skelos after the veto, declining to call a leaders meeting that would’ve also included Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and Senate chairman John Sampson.
In Skelos’ speech on the floor during the override debate, he rallied to Paterson’s defense, just like Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio did this week, when he issued two statements deriding the New York Times for allegedly stirring up rumors about a great expose of Paterson, and publishing nothing.
Skelos said that assembly and senate Democrats have decided “that they’re not happy with him, that he’s hurting politically, so they’re just going to give it to him a little bit more rather than sitting down with him and showing him respect as governor.” At least, cried Skelos, “afford him the opportunity to present his point of view.”
Paterson, of course, claimed he was killing the bill in favor of a stronger one, but even he had to understand that his veto, and alliance with Skelos, might well mean that a state buffeted by scandal will wind up with no ethics change at all. Sources tell the Voice that Silver, who says he hasn’t spoken to Paterson since late January (though he’s quite willing to), told the Democratic assembly conference during their closed-door discussion of the bill that he read that Paterson “was negotiating with the Legislature.” He cryptically asked his fellow assembly Democrats: “Has anybody here heard from him?”
Almost every editorial board in the state urged Paterson to can the bill. The Times swung from pole to pole almost as wildly as the senate. Shortly before the legislature passed the bill, the Times called it “an important step forward” and said it “would definitely improve the miserable status quo in Albany,” even as the paper urged several specific ways of improving it.
Silver and Sampson were so thrilled with even a heavily conditioned nod of approval from the Times that they rushed the bill through both houses by a combined vote of 198 to 3. Then, five days after the first editorial, the Times delivered a second, urging Paterson to veto the bill and noting that it offered “some improvements but not enough.” The Times pointed out that lawmakers would still pick the members of the ethics commission regulating them, and would not be required to disclose their legal clients, both of which were shortcomings it found insufferable.
The huffing and puffing at the Times, News and elsewhere played right into Paterson’s hands, since he’s been trying for months to drive his dreadful poll numbers up by beating up on the Legislature. The edit boards, no doubt with the best intentions, gave Paterson holier-than-thou reasons for a grandstand veto. They also gave Skelos a way out, even as the Times branded him one of the “denizens of old Albany” that hadn’t “gotten the message” yet.
The GOP could then mimic the Times‘ flip, dance with Paterson, and celebrate the result: a dead ethics bill with no fingerprints. They got to pose as reformers without having to live with the reforms. They could look like they were standing up for a better bill than the Democrats, yet never have to bother devising ways to circumvent the nagging new disclosure and other ethics requirements they’d just supported. They could literally have their cake and just go right on gorging on it.
There is still a possibility that assembly and senate Democrats will reach an agreement with Paterson on a bill that does provide independent oversight of legislative ethics and other improvements. But in the unlikely event that they did, it would still take Republican senate votes to pass that bill. Democrat Reuben Diaz was the lone vote against the bill that passed the senate in January, and he is unlikely to support any bill, especially since his amigo, Hiram Monserrate, has been expelled from the senate by the same Democratic leadership that would be seeking his vote on any revised ethics package. And Monserrate, who voted for it, is at least temporarily gone, leaving a vacant seat.
While four Republicans did vote to override, Skelos didn’t need their votes to sustain the veto, so they were allowed off the reservation, an unlikely event if another, tougher, bill is on the floor. If it’s a different bill than the one passed in January, Skelos can always find a plausible reason to oppose one of the amendments.
The only real solution might be an odd and inventive one. The first step is for someone with Paterson’s ear — maybe an editorial board — to persuade Paterson to reverse field, say he tried to get a better bill but couldn’t, and announce that he would sign the same bill, down to the commas, if it came back to his desk a second time. Paterson’s half-a-loaf choice would give him a prize to claim, either in a re-elect campaign, or as part of an otherwise scant legacy.
It would also put the onus squarely on Skelos. His conference would have the choice of voting for a bill it already voted for, unable to hide behind the cover that the override provided, or be unmasked for what it is, a conference as resistant as its convicted former leader to any ethical change in Albany’s ways.