How well have special sessions worked in Albany?
The state Legislature has convened for an “extraordinary” session called by Gov. Andrew Cuomo with the goal of extending mayoral control of New York City public schools. The state Legislature has a history of meeting to pass major legislation in special sessions, often without making it official like the governor did this week. Today’s legislative meeting is “extraordinary” because it was formally ordered by the governor, and extraordinary for what it represents.
Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said he believes the governor convened this session to make a statement and to force the state Legislature to focus on one particular issue. This tactic was used infamously by his predecessor, Gov. David Paterson, who called for one in 2009.
That year, a state Senate leadership crisis resulted in an impasse over several important pieces of legislation. Paterson called the Legislature back to Albany throughout June and July, until the crisis was settled and issues such as mayoral control were resolved. The results were decidedly mixed for the former governor, who, in attempting to exert his power by calling these sessions, was often thwarted or circumvented by finger-pointing legislators.
Horner also mentioned previous cases where state lawmakers had reached an agreement without the theatrics of an extraordinary session called by the governor.
“That’s really when the rubber hits the road,” Horner said of special sessions in general. “Some of the biggest deals that happen occur when the Legislature is out of their formally scheduled session.”
He cited the creation of charter schools by the 1998 Charter Schools Act, a compromise negotiated by Gov. George Pataki which introduced school choice to the state in exchange for a 38 percent pay raise for state legislators. Prior to this special session, the pay for state lawmakers had not been raised in 10 years. Interestingly enough, there was an unsuccessful effort to convene a special session late last year in order to raise salaries for state lawmakers.
Horner also gave the example of a deal negotiated in 2002 between Pataki and the Legislature, tying a $3.5 billion health care plan to a cigarette tax hike by 39 percent. More recently, at the end of 2011, Cuomo used his political skills to reach a compromise with legislative leaders on comprehensive tax reform – which some have cited as Cuomo’s first special session.
Although not formally convened by the governor, these sessions allowed major legislation to be passed. However, they are not as transparent to the public as ones which are officially ordered.
“I think it gives the staff and legislative leaders quiet time to negotiate in secret,” Horner explained. In contrast, today’s extraordinary session will be anything but quiet. Now that legislators are back in Albany, Horner expects broader topics to be discussed, and political agendas to be pursued.
“When the Legislature’s in town, anything can happen,” he said.