New York governor David Paterson recommitted himself to including same-sex marriage on the agenda if he has to call a special session this fall in order to shore up the state's budget woes.
“I am anticipating a special session and I am anticipating this is one of the issues that we will address,” Paterson told The Advocate Thursday night, shortly after leaving a meeting that included representatives from the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, and Gill Action Fund. State senator Thomas Duane joined the discussion by phone.
A special session is almost a foregone conclusion at this point, according to people familiar with the situation in Albany. But assembly speaker Sheldon Silver said this week that he would like to pound out the details of a budget deal before agreeing to hold one.
“They want to have a framework before we come back,” said Paterson. “But I do think because of the deficit we’re going to have to come back and hopefully we'll have an agreement.”
The main purpose of the session, which many insiders anticipate would come toward the end of September, would be to close what amounts to at least a $2.1 billion gap in the Empire State's budget this year. But Paterson said same-sex marriage should also be one of the issues up for discussion.
“Normally I wouldn't do it this way,” he said of adding the marriage bill as an agenda item to a special session. “But I felt that the whole fight over the coup denied the people of New York resolution on a number of issues that were very controversial and had been discussed and advocated for. I think that we owe the public a proper disposition on those pieces of legislation, and one of those was marriage equality.”
Although Paterson would set the agenda for the session, there’s still no guarantee that the marriage bill would get to the floor for a vote. Once the senate “gavels in” to the session, the governor cannot force a vote on the marriage measure, according to spokespeople in his office.
But Senator Duane, who would carry the bill, said once legislation is put on the “active list” of agenda items for a session, it should go straight to the rules committee and then directly to the floor for a vote -- “de facto,” as he put it.
“When it is put on the agenda, I am very optimistic that it will pass,” Duane said, expressing confidence that he had the 32 votes necessary to put the bill on the governor’s desk. “I am confident that if people are voting their consciences -- their hearts -- and politics doesn't interfere, we'll have marriage in New York state.”
Since Democrats narrowly control the senate 32-30, and some Democrats have said they will not vote for the bill, passage will require a handful of GOP votes. Sources familiar with Republican circles say the GOP leadership still intends to let their members take a vote of conscience on a same-sex marriage bill, which increases the likelihood that the measure would pass.
But even Senator Duane would not guarantee a vote on the bill.
“It’s Albany,” he said. “I’m optimistic that we will put politics aside. But it’s been an incredibly difficult year. I’m not 1,000 percent sure that's behind us yet.”
Governor Paterson also acknowledged that he would need the cooperation of the Democratic leadership -- senate president Malcolm Smith and majority leader Pedro Espada Jr. -- to make a vote happen.
“I will be talking to them about what they plan on doing,” he said. “In the end, I can’t bring the bill to the floor. We will need the leadership of the senate, and we’ll need bipartisan support to pass the bill.”
Even as Senator Duane has insisted that he has the votes to pass the bill, Smith said earlier this year that he would not bring a marriage bill to the floor unless he was certain it would succeed. However, Espada has shown a greater willingness to bring marriage equality legislation to the floor.
“I am for same-sex marriage,” Espada said in a June radio interview, shortly after he had switched to the other side of the aisle in a move that briefly gave Republicans a majority in the senate. During the interview, Espada discussed potentially bringing the bill to a vote with the GOP majority. Espada could not be reached for comment for this article.
New York’s marriage equality bill has had a wild ride this year, to say the least.
Though Governor Paterson introduced his marriage bill -- known as a “program bill” -- in April amid some dissent, the measure passed the assembly rather handily, 89-52, in May. But in June a power struggle between Republicans and Democrats in the senate ground Albany to a halt, confounding attempts to get a vote on the bill. By July, Democrats regained control of the senate with Senator Espada becoming the majority leader and Senator Smith remaining senate president.
But Paterson hopes that will all be water under the bridge by the end of the year.
“After the loss of Proposition 8 in California, I've sensed a little confusion and maybe stunned reaction from a lot of the advocates,” he said. Legalizing same-sex marriage in New York, he added, could help “reignite” the marriage spark that tore through the Northeastern states earlier this year.
“I think New York can play an immense role in terms of the national discussion about marriage equality and getting that train right back on the track,” Paterson said.