Analysis: As Usual, Down to the Wire in Albany

New York Times, June 17, 1997
ALBANY, June 16 -- For the tenants, the 2.5 million New Yorkers who had endured weeks of anxiety over the future of their homes, there was one overriding question: Why?

Why were they put through mental and emotional anguish for a compromise, announced this morning by Gov. George E. Pataki and legislative leaders, that might well have been reached months earlier? The answer, quite simply, is that Albany does everything this way.

Negotiators often make unreasonable demands and then wait until the last minute to strike deals, so as to extract the maximum concessions. Leaders so dominate the process that they can force unwilling legislators to follow them no matter how unpopular their stands. Partisan attacks usually drown out policy debates. And the result is usually a compromise where differences are split, interest groups are mollified, the status quo is maintained and everyone can claim victory.

That is exactly what happened as the leaders announced the deal to renew rent regulations in New York State. "I think this is one of those rare occasions when everyone can declare victory," a sleepy-eyed, molasses-tongued Mr. Pataki told reporters at 2 A.M.

Joseph Bruno, the Senate majority leader who began the year calling for radical change in the rent laws, said much the same: "What's good about this is everyone goes out and claims victory," he proclaimed. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, called the results "a win for everybody."

But what they all overlooked was that everyone in Albany tries to declare victory on almost everything that happens here. In this fight, though, the claim often rang hollow.

Mr. Bruno, who claimed to have won important free-market changes, undermined his standing in the Senate by pressuring several members to support a plan they vehemently disliked. Mr. Pataki, who tried to cast himself as a moderate in the fight, somewhat clumsily wound up appearing more closely aligned with landlords against tenants.

The consensus here is that the big winners were Mr. Silver, who stubbornly fought any significant change in the laws, and the tenants organizers. Their campaign focused public criticism on the Republicans and forced them to drop their major demand -- the gradual end of rent regulations.

While all sides agreed on the outlines of a deal, negotiators reported slow progress today in actually writing a bill. The leaders hope to pass a measure in the next couple of days. [Page B4.]

What emerged in the early morning was a compromise that gave landlords some additional income without abolishing the 50-year-old system that so many New Yorkers had come to consider a birthright.

Yet, four years ago, when a Democrat was Governor, giving landlords even a minor break would have been considered a rout. In winning this battle, the Democrats underscored just how much the public debate in New York State has shifted under Mr. Pataki, the first Republican governor in 20 years.

Radical surgery to longstanding legislation is so antithetical to the way Albany works that the agreement, reached two hours after the rent laws expired, was a classic Albany deal: landlords got more money, tenants kept most rent protections in place, Republicans claimed they had brought market reforms to an ossified system and Democrats contended they had protected the middle class.

"The deal is exactly what anyone who had looked at the situation ahead of time would have predicted," said Eric Lane, a law professor at Hofstra Law School and former counsel to the Senate Democratic minority. "It is a split-the-difference bill."

Amid all the victory pronouncements today, no one raised the issue of whether the political brinkmanship had served the public. The dynamics of the rent fight are so common in Albany that they have taken on an almost ritualistic quality.

But while most struggles here go largely unnoticed outside the Capitol -- few New Yorkers know about or care about the repeatedly late adoption of state budgets, for instance -- the rent debate was so emotional and highly publicized that, for the first time, many of state government's most dysfunctional faults were laid bare.

There was little evidence today that the bright light of public attention would bring about change. The process was surely messy, everyone agreed, but many legislators said the final rent agreement was worth it.

"Would I have taken a different path to get to here?" said Senator Nicholas Spano, a Westchester Republican who opposed changing the rent laws. "Yes, I would have personally. But we're more concerned with how we end up than how we got there."

The creakiness of Albany's legislative process was exposed almost from the moment the rent battle was joined, back in December, when Mr. Bruno unveiled a plan to end most protections in two years.

Even then, it was unclear whether he could push that plan through the Senate, since several Republicans with large numbers of regulated units in their districts were prepared to join Democrats to block it. Over time, there was a virtual rebellion among Republicans against his proposal, amid concerns that its passage would endanger their majority by hurting the re-election changes of many Republicans.

Yet Mr. Bruno continued his crusade almost to the deadline of midnight Sunday, threatening either to force the Senate to pass his plan or to use his immense power to block an extension of the rent laws. He ultimately relented, under pressure from the Governor and possibly from United States Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, who wields considerable power here when he so chooses.

In a system where the majority leader was not all-powerful and where individual legislators had more influence, Mr. Bruno's radical plan might have died an early death, Mr. Lane contended.

"If you had gone through a normal process of committee hearings, some substantive research and public debate," he said, "there would have been some agreement weeks ago, because it would have become clear there was a majority supporting something else, perhaps even the deal they eventually arrived at anyway."

As Mr. Pataki tried to play the mediator, tenants groups and Democrats accused him of trying to conduct a good-cop, bad-cop duet with Mr. Bruno, intended to position the Governor's plan as a reasonable compromise, even though it would have meant the eventual end of rent regulations.

Mr. Pataki's aides acknowledged that his and Mr. Bruno's goals were effectively the same, but that they were not coordinating their actions. It did seem clear that Mr. Pataki was trying to use Mr. Bruno's extreme stance to position himself as the moderate in the debate.

The effort did not quite work according to plan. Just days after the state Democratic Party started running television commercials accusing Mr. Pataki and his political mentor, Mr. D'Amato, of conspiring to end rent regulations, the Governor unveiled a detailed proposal that he said would protect 99 percent of all tenants.

But because the plan called for deregulating apartments as they became vacant, a position adamantly opposed by tenants groups, the Governor transformed himself into the primary target for the tenants' lobbying and public relations campaigns.

By early June, that campaign seemed to have taken a toll on the Governor: Mr. Pataki's approval rating had dropped by 10 points over three months, according to a recent New York Times poll -- not an enviable position for an incumbent who will be seeking re-election next year.

While the Governor's aides insisted that the drop was only temporary, they acknowledged that it would take an agreement in the rent fight to restore his previous standing.

So it was perhaps not surprising that when Mr. Silver offered a proposal that would give landlords more money on vacant apartments without deregulating them, the Governor bit at a solution that seemed to offer everybody an honorable escape.