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Croci’s absence throws Senate into uncharted territory

The GOP no longer holds a one-vote majority and operations have ground to a halt as parties jockey.

State Sen. Tom Croci announced on May 2

State Sen. Tom Croci announced on May 2 that he will not seek re-election and instead rejoin the U.S. Navy. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

ALBANY — The continued absence of Sen. Tom Croci, who’s rejoining the military, has thrown a monkey wrench into the day-to-day operations of the State Senate.

Take Wednesday and Thursday. The Republican-led chamber couldn’t pass legislation because it no longer enjoys a one-seat majority. Emboldened Democrats attached amendments regarding abortion rights to noncontroversial bills, politically weighing down measures about Lyme disease and concussions and forcing them to be postponed. A bill brought to the floor for a vote was defeated — something that hasn’t happened in years.

And Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, hovered in her office adjacent to the Senate chamber, waiting for an opportunity to swing open a side door, pop out onto the floor, deploy her rarely used powers to preside over the daily session and cast a tiebreaking vote on proposals her party holds dear.

When she emerged, Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), abruptly shut down proceedings. And both sides began accusing the other of “shameless” and “reprehensible” acts.

It’s more than inside baseball. On a larger scale, it’s raised questions about whether the Senate will vote on anything meaningful during the final three weeks of the 2018 legislative session.

“We’ve never been here before; this is truly uncharted territory,” said former Sen. Michael Balboni, a Long Island Republican who remains close with the Senate majority. “The body politic doesn’t know how this is going to play out.”

The stalemate follows the decision of Croci (R-Sayville) to announce on May 2 he won’t seek re-election and instead rejoin the U.S. Navy, where he had spent eight years on active duty. In the course of making the transition, he has been absent from Senate daily sessions far more often than not and his staff hasn’t disclosed where he’s been. Flanagan’s staff said they aren’t clear how many of the remaining days Croci might attend. The session runs until June 20.

“He is in training for the mission he’s been assigned to,” Chris Molluso, Croci’s chief of staff, told Newsday. He said the senator is in the United States but didn’t provide further details.

With Croci, Republicans had a 32-31 advantage in the chamber. Without him, the sides are deadlocked and neither has the power to pass bills (32 votes are required, not merely a majority of senators present on a given day).

Republican sources said officials were trying with Croci to map out a way he attends three of the final 11 scheduled days of the session — the most to be expected. Privately, they said many senators are unhappy with the situation — uncertain if even small-scale, local bills will die amid the stalemate.

“They’re saying: ‘Why couldn’t you have waited three weeks?’ ” one Republican said after a closed-door GOP conference. “People have local bills, local funding measures. Why not at least finish the session?”

One GOP veteran said members of the Senate majority aren’t sure how to view Croci’s absence.

“I don’t think they know what to make of Croci, because it’s certainly unique,” Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) said. He believes pressure to tackle bills on local taxes, sports gambling, teacher evaluations and opioids, among others, will drive senators back to order.

“Ultimately, the obligation on elected people is to make government work, so the short-term political gain the Democrats are trying to achieve will be eroded when it’s obvious they are stopping the wheels of government,” Hannon said. “It will work out.”

“This is a military person . . . it’s difficult to criticize him for doing that, but we are hopeful that sometime he might come back at least for a couple days to get some important bills passed,” said Sen. James Tedisco (R-Schenectady). Among his pending bills now in doubt is one that would consolidate two small police departments in Herkimer and Hamilton counties at a savings to taxpayers.

Democrats didn’t act immediately on Croci’s absences but pounced this week. They attached a series of abortion-rights amendments to nearly every bill the Republicans placed on the daily calendar for action. Such an action, in theory, triggers an argument on the amendments and a procedural vote on whether to allow debate — a vote for which Hochul could have cast the tiebreaker. (She can vote on a procedural issue but not the underlying bill at hand.)

When the lieutenant governor was in the wings, Republicans used their own parliamentary powers to close down Thursday’s session right after a bill regarding youth sports and concussions was voted down and block the Democrats from formally proposing the abortion amendment. Flanagan accused his opponents of “playing shameless games” with people’s lives and failing to “act like adults.”

“It’s embarrassing. It’s disgusting,” Flanagan said.

He vowed that the chamber would address important issues during the final weeks, but when asked if Croci would appear again in the Senate, Flanagan said: “That’s an open question. That remains a topic of discussion for [Croci] and the federal government.”

Democrats countered that the GOP was playing games — by not producing a list of bills that would be brought up that day and scuttling their side’s chance to bring up any bills.

“They don’t have the votes to pass a single thing in this chamber,” Sen. Michael Gianaris said on the Senate floor. “And their response to that is to jam us.”

After the gavel sounded, Hochul said she and her running mate, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, wanted to see the abortion amendment (codifying Roe v. Wade into state law) be voted on. Signaling longer-term Democratic strategy, she said this should be a campaign issue this fall.

Flanagan bristled at Cuomo and Hochul’s unannounced appearance in the chamber, later telling WNYM-AM radio: “Governor Cuomo is playing games and using the lieutenant governor as his foil.”

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