Rent-Law Backers Appear to Dig in as Expiration Nears

New York Times, June 11, 1997
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Five days before the state laws limiting rent increases on 1.2 million apartments are to expire, Gov. George Pataki and leaders of the Legislature met Tuesday for several hours but said they had made no progress toward a compromise.

The Republican state Senate majority leader who has spearheaded the effort to end rent regulation, Joseph Bruno, continued to insist that if there were no deal with the Democratic-controlled Assembly, he would be content to let the laws expire at midnight Sunday. The Assembly has passed a bill to extend the current rules for four years, and Speaker Sheldon Silver insists that his house will not agree to any weakening of the laws.

"I think you'll see this law expire," Bruno said after one of several meetings Tuesday with Silver and the governor. "I think the speaker and the Democrats who control the Assembly will have to take the responsibility for total deregulation overnight."

Bruno's prediction came even as divisions among Senate Republicans on the issue appeared to be deepening, calling into question his ability to push through the Senate his and the governor's plan to phase out the regulations.

Bruno said for the first time Tuesday that he might not call for a vote on his plan, knowing that it would die in the Assembly, though he insisted he still had enough votes to carry it.

It was an admission that the vote would be politically damaging to some Republicans, a pointless risk if the measure were doomed. "I am not going to expose my members any more than I have to," he said.

Democrats are betting that if they hold fast, refusing to make any major concessions, the Republicans will begin to feel the ire of downstate voters who are fearful of deregulation, and will capitulate.

All year, Bruno had said that if there were no deal with the Assembly, the Senate would pass a bill just before the deadline, as a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the other chamber. Tuesday, he reversed course, saying that there probably would not be a bill from the Senate, acknowledging the political difficulty of the issue for many Republicans.

Bruno also had to put down a new rebellion by two Republican senators from the city who sit on a crucial committee, and who said they would join Democrats on the panel to prevent Bruno from sending his plan to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Late in the day, it appeared that he had found a way around that obstacle.

And some senators said that in a conference of Republican senators Monday, some upstate senators who have little invested in the rent fight told Bruno that if it were a choice between property tax relief -- which many Republicans call their highest priority this year -- and changing the rent laws, he should capitulate on rent. Others who were present said the exchange never took place.

Even if Bruno could push his plan through the Senate, such talk is extraordinary in Albany, where party discipline is ironclad and most votes are arranged well in advance. The day's events were evidence of the challenge he faces in keeping his forces together on what has proved to be one of the most incendiary issues state government has tackled in years.

After meeting with the two legislative leaders, Pataki also accused the Democrats of intransigence, indicating that he would blame them if the laws lapsed. "There has to be a desire on the part of the speaker to reach an agreement," he said.

But Silver still insisted that the present rent laws be continued. "We need somebody here, somebody with leadership to understand that this is what the people want," he said.

Early Tuesday evening, Pataki said he had still not decided whether to attend his $2,500-a-person fund-raising party Tuesday on Long Island. Word that the governor might attend the event, which centered on a golf tournament, caused Democrats and tenant advocates to assail him for daring to fiddle while the rent issue burned.

After meeting with legislative leaders, Pataki said it was still possible that he would fly to Long Island to catch the end of the fund-raiser.

The city's major landlords' group, wary of a potential public outcry over steep rent increases, called on its members Tuesday to abide by the current laws even if they expire.

There is little time left for state leaders to negotiate before the deadline. Silver will be unavailable Wednesday and Thursday while observing a Jewish holiday, and on Saturday for the sabbath.

Pataki advocates vacancy decontrol, which would end rent controls on apartments when the tenants move out, die or are evicted, stressing that the current rules would still protect renters as long as they did not move. But vacancy decontrol would also make it impossible for most renters to move into rent-regulated apartments ever again.

Bruno first proposed complete deregulation within a few years, then retreated to the vacancy decontrol position. He would also eliminate rent restrictions for people earning $125,000 a year or more, while Pataki advocates a limit of $175,000.

Bruno has not yet introduced a bill on the rent issue, and if he did, it would have to go through the Rules Committee. Two members of that committee are Roy Goodman of Manhattan and Frank Padavan of Queens, the only two Republican senators who have said firmly that they will oppose Bruno in a vote on a rent bill.

And both men said this week that they would join Democrats on the committee to form a majority voting not to send a vacancy decontrol bill to the Senate floor.

But Tuesday afternoon, Bruno said he could circumvent the challenge, though he would not elaborate. Goodman said Bruno could simply attach his rent plan to an unrelated bill that is already on the Senate floor, or the majority leader might have the power to remove the rogue senators from the committee.

Republicans hold 35 of the 61 Senate seats, and New York state legislators are loathe to oppose their leaders, who have the power to dole out choice committee assignments, thousands of dollars in stipends and crucial campaign money. But Bruno's stance on rent has made life difficult for several downstate Republican senators, and it has been clear for months that he will be working with the slimmest of margins.

Goodman and Padavan have said they will defy him. Sens. Nicholas Spano of Yonkers and Guy Velella of the Bronx have said they do not want to make any major changes to the rent laws, but they have not said how they will vote.

The dispute has put a handful of other Republican senators from New York City and Nassau County in an uncomfortable position, but they still appear to be in Bruno's camp.