New York State gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo speaks with his...

New York State gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo speaks with his running mate Robert Duffy during a campaign rally at the Southwest Community Center. (Oct. 26, 2010) Credit: Charles Eckert

The lieutenant governor's tiebreaker role in the State Senate is back in the spotlight because three races are still undecided, fueling speculation Democrats and Republicans could be in a standoff for control next year.

Both parties agree the lieutenant governor can cast the deciding vote on procedural matters, but not legislation. Still, they vow a legal battle over whether the definition of procedural includes the vote on Senate leader in January.

The leader's party controls the chamber, and in 2011 that means great influence in fashioning New York's power structure for the next 10 years, experts said. Lawmakers themselves will redraw legislative district boundaries in 2011-12.

"There's going to be a lot of acrimony. . . . The stakes are high," said Jamie P. Chandler, a Hunter College political scientist.

A lieutenant governor has never determined Senate leadership in modern state history.

Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, citing Senate rules, said recently that the lieutenant-governor-elect, Robert Duffy, also a Democrat, has the authority to break a tie. Cuomo did not say whether Duffy would do so.


Fallout would be mixed

Most current and former lieutenant governors interviewed by Newsday agreed with Cuomo, though two said they would cast the deciding vote only if the parties couldn't agree on sharing power. The current office holder, Richard Ravitch, said he'd break a tie only "if there was no alternative." But compromise would be preferable because of the state's problems, "and a little less partisanship would go a long way."

The ramifications of Duffy determining who controls the Senate would be mixed, according to political observers. They said Cuomo would likely have an easier time passing his agenda, but would risk being accused of a power grab.

"He will get his proposals through, assuming he can get the Assembly to go along, but he also will get blamed for things that don't happen," said George Arzt, a Democratic consultant.

Republican David Catalfamo, a former aide to Gov. George Pataki, disagreed, saying Cuomo doesn't want a war with lawmakers. "I don't think he would relish having to step into the legislative branch. . . . Let the legislature, as it should, work it out."


Voters mainly want action

Voters appear to have the same view. More than half want the parties to share power regardless of who has more seats because of the gridlock since Democrats won a 32-30 majority in 2008, said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg. "They want to see action on the things they care about, like jobs and the budget," he said.

Despite ongoing recounts in three districts that lean Democratic, Republicans are confident they will have the 32 votes necessary for a majority in the 62-member Senate, and possibly one extra. Democrats contend they will keep the majority.

The races that are still too close to call are in Buffalo, Westchester and Nassau - where incumbent Democrat Craig Johnson of Port Washington trails Republican Jack Martins of Mineola.

Asked about a possible tie, Scott Reif, an aide to Minority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), said, "We don't believe that's going to happen." He added the tiebreaker role doesn't extend to "substantive matters, such as legislation or resolutions to elect leadership."

Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the Democratic majority, shot back, saying the lieutenant governor can and should break ties in leadership votes.

Any lawsuit likely would end up in the Court of Appeals, the state's highest, where some predicted the lieutenant governor's powers would be upheld. Robert B. Ward of SUNY's Rockefeller Institute of Government, said: "The [lieutenant governor's] . . . vote exists to allow legislative business to proceed. Election of leadership is essential to the work of the Senate."

Ward said Cuomo would have a "level of influence not seen in decades" if his lieutenant governor determined Senate control. But Cuomo must take "great care to avoid antagonizing members of the legislature, who guard their institutional prerogatives jealously."

Control of the upper chamber has been in doubt before, though governors — not lieutenant governors — helped craft a resolution.

Senate is tied 31-31 after one renegade Democrat deserts a GOP-led coalition that had launched a coup. Gridlock ensues for 31/2 weeks until Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, appoints Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor. Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bronx) immediately returns to the Democratic fold, restoring its majority.

Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, a Republican, ends a five-week leadership stalemate by urging the Senate’s GOP minority to support Sen. Joseph Zaretzki of Manhattan, a Democrat.

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