By NICK REISMAN
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- Lawmakers in the state Senate Tuesday bickered over proposed rules changes that Democrats argued would diminish the powers of the lieutenant governor and create a new committee in order to award a breakaway Democratic legislator.
Republicans, meanwhile, contended the proposals were minor parliamentary adjustments and that Democrats were purposely misinterpreting the changes.
In the end, senators left Albany without agreeing to any changes.
If the episode accomplished anything, it highlighted the still simmering tension between Republican and Democratic senators that has only worsened since the start of the new year.
The dispute came a day after Senate lawmakers squabbled in session over seating in the Senate chamber and the amount legislators received in office allocations.
And earlier this month, four Democratic lawmakers disaffected with the leadership of Sen. John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, bolted from the conference to form an independent voting bloc.
Also Tuesday, Republicans named three of breakaway Democratic senators - David Carlucci of Clarkstown, Rockland County, Diane Savino of Staten Island and David Valesky of Syracuse - to committee chairmanships. Each post comes with a stipend of $12,500 on top of their base pay of $79,500 a year.
The rules would also have created the Senate Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Committee, with Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, leading the panel as chairman. Klein is the leader of the independent conference of Democrats.
Following a two-hour Senate Rules Committee meeting that featured an at times sarcastic, at times heated tit-for-tat between Republicans and Democrats, the proposed rules changes were defeated.
Republicans, who incorrectly believed they had enough votes to pass the rules out of the committee, found that Sen. John LaValle of Suffolk County had left Albany earlier in the day.
"I just didn't realize that a member wasn't present," said Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, who was acting as the committee chairman during the meeting. "We had a member who was not here and that created a problem, it's that simple."
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, complained that some of the rules as proposed by the Republicans usurped the state constitution and complained that copies of the rules changes were made available just two hours before the Senate convened.
"Finding this two hours before flies in the face of the work that we did collectively," said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, during the meeting.
Libous, for his part, told Democrats during the meeting that the changes "were a work in progress."
Republicans wanted to amend the rules of the legislative process in the Senate that would, among other things, disallow the lieutenant governor from casting a tie-breaking vote the Senate majority leader.
The current lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy, is a Democrat.
Republicans hold a narrow, one-seat majority of 32-30 over Democrats after winning back control of the upper chamber in November.
"The lieutenant governor is not an elected member of the Senate," Libous said after the committee meeting. "We used language out of the constitution that basically states that. We believe it's good language."
Democrats also charged that the proposals did away with term limits for committee chairs, post-budget adoption hearings.
The Senate Rules Committee meeting, held late in the day, was punctuated with crosstalk and tart comments from senators.
Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, asked if Libous could read a portion of the prior rules aloud. The request was denied.
Duane's line of questioning evolved to asking multiple times about when the proposed rules were given to Senate staff, prompting a rebuke from Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie.
"You've asked it 26 ways and gotten 26 answers," Saland said.
Saland characterized the rules changes as "mundane."
"I don't think people sitting around their kitchen table will have grand, philosophical debates about what this all means," he said.
Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Mount Vernon, Westchester County, said Democrats and their constituents were "disenfranchised" by the proposal.
"We have offered to you substantive issues at this table," she said. "I think that it is not mundane to discuss something, even if it is ad nauseum."
Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, Seneca County, meanwhile, angrily defended the rules, saying they eliminated costly post-budget review meetings.
"It takes 20 minutes to read these rules changes. Frankly, Mr. Chairman, I think we've seen this become frankly a filibuster," he said. "I haven't heard one solid argument against these rules."
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