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Growing number of vacancies in legislature likely to remain until 2015

A view of the New York state Assembly chambers.

The New York state legislature now has 11 unfilled seats, after one Assemblyman resigned over a sexual harassment scandal and another was expelled after being convicted of a felony. But it could be another year before those seats are filled.

In recent days, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson of the Bronx was automatically ousted from the Assembly when he was convicted on felony bribery charges. Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, of Cheektowaga, resigned under pressure after seven women accused him of sexual harassment.

The total number of vacancies in the legislature is now up to 11. Four New York City Democrats in the Assembly won seats on the city council last November, and four upstate Republicans took county or town government posts.

In the Senate, Democrat Eric Adams became Brooklyn Borough president, while Long Island Republican Charles Fuschillo left to head a national Alzheimer's group.

Under state law special elections can be held to fill vacancies. But despite the growing number of empty seats, there doesn’t seem to be much interest.

Several months ago, in his only public comments on the matter, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was not a priority.

“We don’t have any plans as of now,” Cuomo said on November 18. “It’s a balance of the cost and the hardship of the election, versus the communities’ right to representation.”

Cuomo’s staff says his opinion hasn’t changed since then.

The Assembly has the most vacancies, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says it might be too late now anyway for it to make much of a difference during the 2014 legislative session. He says by the time an election could be held, after a mandatory 70-day campaign period, it would be mid March and the budget process would be over.

“We believe we’ll have an on time or early budget this year, so new members will not deliberate on that,” Silver said.

And the Speaker predicts there won’t be many more issues left to decide after that.

“The real question is how much legislative work will be done post budget,” Silver said.

Government reform groups are dismayed.

“I find it genuinely upsetting,” said Susan Lerner, with Common Cause New York. Lerner said. “If what we’re only concerned about in our elections is cost, then dictatorship is the cheapest form of government.”  

Learner says there are some flaws in the current law for special elections that gives party bosses too much influence over choosing candidates. But she says for now, it’s better to elect someone than to leave the seats vacant.   

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, also thinks special elections should be held to fill the 11 vacancies.

“It’s really indefensible,” Horner said. “The governor dragging his feet or any other elected official throwing cold water on the enthusiasm to have elections, it’s anti-democratic.”

Horner disputes Silver’s assertion that elections could not be held before the budget is finished. He says they could be held the same day as village elections, on March 18, and the new lawmakers could be seated in time to weigh in before the budget is due on April 1. He says after the budget is completed each year, there’s still plenty of action before the legislative session ends in the summer. He says for instance, the 2011 law to legalize same sex marriage was approved in June.

“That’s a big deal,” Horner said. “There’s lots of big non-budget issues that are going to be dealt with, there always is. Thousands of bills become law in June.”

Lawmakers also come back for additional sessions in the fall most years.

Unless the governor changes his mind, the elections for the 11 vacant seats will not occur until the general election next November. New senators and members of the Assembly will not fill the posts until January 2015, nearly one year from now.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.