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Paterson asserts right to appoint lieutenant governor

Critics of the New York governor's move say he doesn't have constitutional authority to do that. A court hearing is scheduled for Friday.

By Staff writer / July 9, 2009

New York Gov. David Paterson (l.) has appointed Richard Ravitch to the post of lieutenant governor. Here, they took part in a press conference in Albany on Thursday.

Hans Pennink/AP

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The month-long standoff that has paralyzed New York's state government is apparently over.

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A rogue Democrat who defected to the Republican caucus has flipped back to the Democrats.

The move came after Gov. David Paterson (D) gave the Senate a severe tongue-lashing, and – for the first time in the state's history – appointed a lieutenant governor who could break the deadlock.

Calling the New York Senate “childish” and “chaotic,” Governor Paterson on Thursday asserted his right to appoint a lieutenant governor. He has also gone to court to challenge the Republican-backed effort to stop his new lieutenant governor, Richard Ravitch, from assuming his duties.

Meanwhile, critics of Paterson's move say he had no constitutional authority to appoint Mr. Ravitch.

A court hearing on the issue is scheduled for Friday morning.

This is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of power plays that has gripped New York State, making it a national poster child (second only to California) for government dysfunction at a time of fiscal crisis.

“It’s crazy, it’s the twilight zone. So once you’re in the twilight zone, the utterly irrational happens and becomes normal,” says Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College in New York.

The crisis started in early June, when a Republican-backed coup in the Senate left it split 31 to 31 and unable to pass vital legislation – such as a sales-tax bill that would provide millions of dollars to cities and towns around the state. Municipalities have been hopping mad – and so, too, is the governor.

“From one day to the next, the Senate has befuddled us and confused us with the politics of deception,” he told a press conference Thursday morning. “Where we need to put our focus right now is, why can’t these 62 men and women go in the Senate chamber, lay [out] their arguments, put down their excuses, lay down their weapons, and pass these vital pieces of legislation?”

In New York, the lieutenant governor has the authority to break ties on procedural issues in the Senate, but cannot vote on issues of substance. The state constitution does not provide for filling the position once it is vacated. Paterson himself vacated the position when he replaced Eliot Spitzer as governor. Mr. Spitzer resigned last year.

Paterson said Thursday that the primary reason he appointed Ravitch was to clear up confusion about succession, should anything happen to him.

According to the state constitution, however, the Senate president pro tem becomes the acting lieutenant governor when the office is vacant. Until state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. returned to the Democratic fold Thursday afternoon, it was unclear who that person was, because neither party had a majority. Now, Democrats have control of the Senate, and Senator Espada is the majority leader.

In appointing a lieutenant governor, Paterson said he had a responsibility to bring the government "back into balance." He also said he had expected a legal challenge to his move but is confident it will stand up in court. He, a group of legal scholars, and good-government groups say that the governor’s authority to appoint public officials is delineated in the law, even if not clearly.

Critics of Paterson's decision include state Attorney General (and Paterson political rival) Andrew Cuomo.

Ravitch, who was sworn in during a private ceremony Wednesday night, is a distinguished lawyer and developer with a long history of helping to bail New York out of dire fiscal messes.

If the courts do back Paterson's move, it could be considered a brilliant political maneuver to bring stability back to the Senate chamber, some say. But if the state’s highest court rules against him, it could backfire politically.

“It sounds like the semiofficial start of campaign 2010,” Professor Muzzio says. “All of the speculation is that Andrew Cuomo is waiting and seeing what’s going to happen. If the court agrees with Cuomo’s preliminary remarks that it’s unconstitutional, then Paterson has another self-inflicted wound – and forget about the foot, now he’s aiming at his vital organs here.”

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. on July 9.

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