ALBANY — The fractious State Senate on Wednesday resumed its sharp partisanship Wednesday over the composition of its ethics committee and in a new ban on using cellphones that could catch embarrassing moments on social media in the chamber.
The Senate’s Republican majority provided new rules to the mainline Democrats serving in the minority just a couple hours before the organizational session for 2017 was to begin. The rule changes included a small but potentially significant change in the makeup of the Senate Ethics Committee. The committee can refer cases of misconduct to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which can sanction lawmakers.
The change replaced the requirement for an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to serve on the Senate Ethics Committee to an equal number of majority and minority conference members. The change was adopted along partisan lines. That means the Republican majority could appoint Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) to the committee in one of the slots reserved for Democrats, even though Felder sits with and is part of the Republican majority conference.
The rule change also means the other Democratic slots could be filled with Democrats from the seven-member Independent Democratic Conference, which is allied with the Republicans to form a majority coalition. That could leave the mainline Democrats without a representative on the eight-member Senate Ethics Committee, which has been evenly divided by party.
“Ethics should be above politics,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) in opposing the rule change. “It isn’t exactly fair.”
“Some things should transcend politics,” said Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville) in defending the rule change. “We believe that this is the best way to assure fairness.” He said the decision on who would make the appointments to the committee would be decided later by the leaders of the Republican, IDC and Democratic conferences.
“This is drafted in a way that politicizes an ethics body,” Gianaris said.
The Senate’s Republican majority also introduced the ban on cellphone cameras as a way to preserve decorum. But the discussion showed Republicans have been stung by mainline Democrats’ use of cellphone cameras to record controversial votes and to catch Democrats in the IDC voting along with Republicans. The images were used in contentious campaigns last fall.
Democrats noted that many votes are made by a voice vote or by a show of hands, neither of which are recorded in detail. A cellphone image or video would show how members voted.
Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) said the measure will keep the Senate orderly and prevent cellphone images of “an official [who] says something foolish” or to capture a joke or acerbic dig during a debate from ending up on websites or a TV program.
“I remember instances of people laughing and talking, like this was basically a fun time or on the playground,” DeFrancisco said.
“This is a violation of our free speech and an insult to New Yorkers,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan). “We should all shudder at the thought of our First Amendment right being curtailed . . . Cellphones are important not just for selfies, but it’s a way for us to connect with our constituents.”
The rule also passed along partisan lines.