N.Y. Senate GOP Deeply Split
on Leader's Rent Plan

By JAMES DAO
New York Times, June 4, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. -- A fierce internal struggle broke out Tuesday among state Senate Republicans over the future of state rent laws.

Senators from New York City and its suburbs strongly urged Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno to back away from his plans to pass legislation that would sharply scale back rent protections for 2.5 million tenants.

During a series of heated meetings, several Republican senators from the city and its suburbs told Bruno, a Republican of Rensselaer County, that they would suffer severe political damage if forced to vote on his bill, even if they voted against it.

Senators from the region are under such pressure that Bruno's majority may dwindle to a one-vote margin, a sign of weakness.

As a compromise, Bruno agreed Tuesday not to release the actual bill he was planning to introduce but rather to make public Wednesday just the outlines of his plan, according to Senate officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The plan could then be subject to public debate without being locked into the language of legislation.

Bruno declined Tuesday to say precisely when he would ask the Senate to pass his measure, leaving open the possibility of delaying a vote until the moment the laws expire, at the end of the day June 15.

Tuesday's machinations underscore the political problems Bruno faces in trying to hold together his 5-vote majority in the 61-member Senate. Two senators, Roy Goodman of Manhattan and Frank Padavan of Queens, have already broken with Bruno and say they are prepared to vote with Democrats to preserve current rent regulations.

Two others, Nicholas Spano of Westchester County and Guy Velella of the Bronx, have said they support the current rent laws but have been unwilling to break publicly with Bruno. A fifth senator, Serphin Maltese of Queens, has expressed concerns about Bruno's plan but has suggested that he may be willing to vote for the majority leader's bill.

All five senators have a large number of rent-regulated apartments in their districts.

Though Bruno's bill is largely symbolic, since it has no chance of passing in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, it remains an important symbol of Bruno's grip over his house.

If Spano and Velella were to vote against Bruno's plan, it would leave the majority leader with a bare one-vote majority -- which in Albany, where bills typically pass with several votes to spare, would be viewed as weakness.

Asked Tuesday whether he could muster more than a one-vote majority for his bill, Bruno demurred. "My expectation is I have enough votes to pass a bill and that's all that I need," he said. "I'd be willing to pass it so it is operative. And then the ball will be in the Assembly's court."

Even if Bruno cannot hold together a majority behind his rent plan, he remains in a strong position, because he can single-handedly block any bill to renew the rent laws from reaching the Senate floor. And if the Senate does nothing, the laws will expire.

However, Bruno is under heavy pressure from other Republican officials, including Gov. George Pataki and U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, to provide an alternative to having the laws just abruptly end. Bruno is prodding the Senate Republicans to support his plan, which would end the rent laws over several years.

Bruno is expected to hold a news conference Wednesday to unveil his plan.

Some downstate senators, including Velella and Spano, are expected to attend the event, though they will not endorse his proposals. They will, however, call on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who has refused to discuss any changes to the rent laws, to begin talks on compromises.

Though Bruno declined to offer details Tuesday about his plan, he has said in the past that it will include a provision to allow landlords to raise rents to market rates when apartments become vacant, a policy known as vacancy decontrol. He would also expand a policy known as luxury decontrol, where regulations are lifted on wealthy tenants.

Under current law, tenants earning $250,000 or more for two consecutive years and who live in apartments with rents of more than $2,000 lose their protections. Bruno would bring down those thresholds, possibly to the point where luxury decontrol applied to anyone earning $150,000 or more annually.

Bruno's plan would also require judges to order tenants to pay rent into an escrow account during disputes with landlords, a measure sought by landlords. It would impose jail sentences and other stiffer penalties on landlords who harass tenants. And it is likely to call for restrictions on the rights of tenants to pass on regulated apartments to relatives or domestic partners after they move out or die.

Tuesday evening, Pataki appeared on a television interview broadcast live by New York One, the cable television channel. "What we have done -- not just me, it's other senators from New York -- is talk to Senator Bruno," the governor said, "and say: 'Look, we understand your philosophical position, but this is a very important practical question for millions of people in New York City and other areas of the state that rely on rent control and rent stabilization. And you can't simply insist on a philosophical position.' "

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company