ALBANY - A surprise move this week by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) to change the tiebreaking procedures on certain votes signaled that one or more veteran Republicans might not finish their term - possibly throwing the chamber into a 31-31 tie, Democrats say.
The two Republicans considered most likely are Sen. Owen Johnson, 81, (R-West Babylon) and Sen. Hugh Farley, 79, (R-Schenectady) - the only two Republicans not given a committee chairmanship when the Senate reconvened earlier this month, sources said. Johnson has served in the Senate since 1972; Farley since 1976.
The Republicans' sudden move to adopt new rules for the chamber came on Tuesday, with Democrats getting just a two-hour notice. The most important proposal would keep Democratic Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy from casting a tiebreaking vote to determine Senate president, a post currently held by Skelos thanks to the Republicans' 32-30 advantage.
Democrats said there was no urgency for making the change - other than to protect Republican interests in the near future.
"Senator Skelos recognizes the frailty of his majority," said Travis Proulx, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats. "If a single Republican senator retires or leaves office, Skelos believes this brazen power grab will help him retain his perch atop Albany's dysfunction, when his actions could land New York in a constitutional crisis at the taxpayers' expense."
A Republican spokesman said talk of any retirements was "absolutely not" true.
"No one has indicated that they aren't going to finish their term," said GOP spokesman Scott Reif. "The rules [proposals] are meant to ensure that the Senate operates efficiently going forward."
Republicans' plans to enact the new rules were foiled when they did not have a sufficient number of members at a Rules Committee meeting. But they have vowed to try again, as soon as next week.
If the rule is adopted, it means that even if Republicans lost a seat in the near future, Democrats could not unseat Skelos with the help of the lieutenant governor. Duffy and the Cuomo administration have not commented on the fight.
Johnson easily won another two-year term in November, beating Democrat Maeghan H. Lollo by a nearly 2-1 ratio. If a legislator retires before the end of his or her term, a special election can be called by the governor. Johnson's South Shore district is split politically, with about 69,000 Democrats, 65,000 Republicans and 49,000 independent voters.