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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

State leaders face a choice after Sandy

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks following a

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks following a visit to Cedar Grove Ave with U.S. President Barack Obama to survey damage from superstorm Sandy on Staten Island. (Nov. 15, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

As the Sandy emergency abates in the coming weeks and months, state legislative leaders will face a defining choice.

Acting independently of the governor's office, they can address potentially difficult and politically awkward questions about disaster preparedness, utilities, coastlines and gasoline delivery. Or, they can cautiously issue bromides and wait for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's commission on utilities and other actions to run their course.

The sweep of recent history might favor the second, since high-profile legislative inquiries, like those in Congress, have a way of following partisan scripts.

When former Gov. Eliot Spitzer gathered up certain police information to damage former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the Senate's investigation and oversight committee aggressively grilled administration staffers on the matter.

Spitzer was a Democrat, Bruno a Republican, and they openly hated each other. So an urgent probe full of sharp public questioning became politically expedient for the GOP State Senate to carry out.

Assemb. Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat, challenged Republican Gov. George Pataki with probes and hearings on state public authorities' practices. A major reform bill was signed into law in 2009 -- by Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson.

In Albany, the Cuomo administration and the legislators have notably cooperated, so any hearings in either house at this point likely wouldn't be schismatic, "gotcha" confrontations. But would their softened divide keep hard questions from being asked by the legislative branch while Cuomo's office conducts its own post-storm inquiries?

So far, Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), chairman of the Investigation and Government Operations Committee, plans to hold a hearing early next year on flaws in the Long Island Power Authority's performance. He's made inquiries and constructive suggestions before -- after Tropical Storm Irene -- and by his account was ignored. His news release this week describes him as "furious that LIPA failed to consider any recommendations the committee made after the first hearing."

"I want and demand answers to why LIPA cannot get it right," he said.

Maybe inquiries will be directed toward the two nonpaid trustees chosen by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), or those of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), or of Cuomo, who can pick a majority of the 15.

Newsday asked Skelos spokesman Scott Reif if he agrees with Cuomo that current LIPA trustee vacancies don't matter, and that LIPA is merely a holding company -- and whether Skelos has been in touch with his LIPA appointees. Reif's full reply: "Senator Skelos has said that LIPA failed in its response to Hurricane Sandy, especially when it came to communicating to the public. The actions of LIPA need to be investigated through legislative hearings so that we can examine many of these issues."

Other questions abound. Were New York officials too slow to ration gasoline? Did Cuomo aide Howard Glaser really call the chairman of Shell Oil and threaten to seize a terminal to help get fuel pumping? Has the Public Service Commission's requested monitoring of LIPA mattered? How did PSEG, Long Island's incoming electric utility, perform in its current service areas?

Legislators can pursue their own answers. Or, they can forgo oversight until a partisan agenda demands it.


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