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N.Y. Lawmakers Locked in Combat

Named the most dysfunctional state legislators in the nation, New York lawmakers seem determined to live up to the title.

The state Senate has been shut down for nearly a month after an attempted coup by Republicans resulted in an evenly split chamber that continues to fight over who's in charge.

Under court order to stay in session but unable to muster a quorum to vote, the Senate has let legislation lapse that will cost counties $600 million in sales tax revenue.

The stalemate is extreme even by standards in Albany, where secrecy is the rule, bills aren't brought to the floor unless they'll pass and majority control is absolute.

"There's a national competition to see which state has the most problematic state government. And we were afraid that Illinois was ahead," says Gerald Benjamin, a government expert at the State University of New York-New Paltz. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was ousted on corruption charges in January.

Why doesn't the lieutenant governor break the tie? New York doesn't have one. Lt. Gov. David Paterson stepped up to the big chair last year after his boss, Eliot Spitzer, was forced out of office for patronizing a prostitute. That makes the Senate president next in line to the governorship.

Epithets are flying. Paterson calls the Senate "disgusting." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls the Senate a "train wreck" and the stalemate "craziness and mishegoss" - craziness in Yiddish.

The New York Post ran a front page photo of the Senate with the head of Bozo the Clown superimposed on each member. The Daily News is running a "Don't Pay the Bums!" campaign.

"Where this falls on the continuum of 'bad' to 'ridiculous' to 'just absurd' is 'really just absurd,' " says Dan Morris of the Drum Major Institute, a liberal New York think tank. "People are often politically disengaged for a reason, and Albany is giving them a million more reasons."

New York Senate Democrats won a 32-30 majority last November, their first in 40 years. But on June 8, two Democrats threw their support to the GOP. The Republicans declared a majority and elected one of the two, Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., as Senate president, succeeding Sen. Malcolm Smith.

When the second defector quickly returned to his original party, the chamber was deadlocked 31-31. Now Espada and Smith both claim the presidency.

The job of Senate president is vital: Albany runs on the principle known as "three men in a room." The governor, Assembly speaker and Senate president make deals in private, then send bills to the Legislature "as a rubber stamp," says Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, whose study of state legislatures named New York's the "most dysfunctional."

The governor will keep legislators in session until they finally work out a power-sharing deal, says Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York, a good-government group. Meanwhile, "we're going to see more useless kabuki political theater."

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