Albany Agenda

Retiring lawmakers leave obscure leadership roles vacant

Help wanted: state Senate vice president pro tempore.

State Senate Vice President Pro Tempore Neil Breslin is retiring.

State Senate Vice President Pro Tempore Neil Breslin is retiring. New York state Senate

The state Legislature is expecting several departures this year between retirements, attempts at higher office and lawmakers simply not running for reelection. Some of those exits include rarely spotlighted leadership positions in the Democratic and Republican parties, like Assembly speaker pro tempore or state Senate vice president pro tempore. 

Now the titles may seem ambiguous, but leadership positions chock full of descriptors like “majority” and “chair” may involve responsibilities like helping to organize legislative pushes, running conference meetings or simply helping their party’s conference achieve its goals. 

Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Jeff Aubry, a Democrat, plans to retire at the end of this year. Aubry spent decades in the chamber and more than 10 years as the “voice of the Assembly” presiding over votes and floor debates. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is rarely present, so Aubry runs the session almost daily from the dais pro tempore or “for the time being.” 

Assembly Ways and Means Chair Helene Weinstein, also a Democrat, announced she would be leaving at the end of her term as well. Weinstein’s committee is responsible for all things financial and plays a big role in annual budget talks. After the Assembly’s one-house budget was released, she was the one taking questions on the floor about a wide range of fiscal provisions proposed by Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers. 

On the other side of the Capitol, Democratic state Senate leadership is slated to lose state Sens. Tim Kennedy and Kevin Thomas (who recently dropped out of his race) to election bids this year while state Sen. Neil Breslin plans to retire. Between the three of them, the chamber will lose its vice president pro tempore, senior assistant majority leader and assistant majority leader on house operations.

The final decisions on who will replace those lawmakers ultimately rest with the leaders of the state Legislature’s chambers. After waiting for the elections to wrap up, Heastie in the Assembly and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins review the best available candidates who they feel would be ready to step into larger roles and most importantly, would want the jobs.

Not all leadership positions, including those held by Breslin, Kennedy and Thomas, come with stipends on top of regular legislative salary. But Stewart-Cousins, Deputy state Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, state Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, Deputy state Senate Minority Leader Andrew Lanza, state Senate Finance Chair Liz Krueger and state Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Thomas O’ Mara all are eligible for stipends. In the Assembly, Heastie, Aubry, Weinstein, Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Minority Leader William Barclay, Minority Leader Pro Tempore Andy Goodell, Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Ed Ra, Codes Committee Chair Jeffrey Dinowitz and Codes Committee Ranking Member Angelo Morinello are eligible for stipends. 

Unlike some of the other leadership positions, each of those roles are fairly well-defined responsibilities and influence. The deputy leaders in the state Senate, for example, act as their leaders’ seconds-in-command and serve as the floor leaders for their conferences during session. The majority leader and minority leader pro tempore in the Assembly similarly serve as floor leaders in their chamber.

In the past, all leadership positions offered stipends, known as “lulus,” that were opposed by good government watchdogs. The plethora of leadership roles offered the opportunity for members to receive that extra cash even if committee chairs were not available. According to one Albany insider, who spoke on background to to candidly describe the positions, the majority of positions today are remnants of the old days of lulus, and provide the opportunity for leadership to offer ceremonial titles to senior members who are not otherwise chairing a committee. In the Senate, where leadership has created new committees as their conference grew, senior members can double up on chairing and leadership roles. In 2023, Krueger turned her stipend down so as to not seem under the sway of party leadership.

There is a significant time commitment that comes with some leadership roles. Goodell, who leads floor debate for the GOP opposite of Democratic Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes, said his weekly schedule involved middle-of-the-night texts and phone calls regarding legislation. He is also departing.