By Joseph Spector -
ALBANY — A small group of undecided state senators could determine whether same-sex marriage will become legal in New York, a survey by Gannett's Albany Bureau found.Eight senators — including the two who represent Dutchess County — indicated they are undecided on whether they would support same-sex marriage legislation if the bill comes to a vote, a survey of all 62 senators found.
The measure would need 32 votes for adoption in the Senate, and 26 senators, all Democrats, indicated they would back the bill. Twenty-eight senators expressed opposition — possibly leaving the measure's fate in the hands of the eight undecided lawmakers, five Republicans and three Democrats.
The senators who have not publicly declared their stance include Sens. Steve Saland, R-Poughkeepsie; Greg Ball, R-Carmel, Putnam County; and James Alesi, R-Perinton, Monroe County. Alesi and Saland voted against the bill in 2009 when it failed by eight votes.
"I've heard from any number of people on both sides of the issue," Saland explained. "And certainly I'm trying to take into account, in a deliberative fashion, the issues that have been raised by the proponents, issues which hadn't necessarily been raised with me when I cast a vote previously."
Ball opposed same-sex marriage as an assemblyman, but now says he's reconsidering his position as a first-year senator. Ball wants any legislation to include protections for religious organizations if they refuse to recognize same-sex marriage.
"I really want to see real religious carve-outs that protect the church and other religious institutions, as well as a clear division defined in the bill between civil marriage and religious marriage," Ball said.
The current bill, which has been introduced in the Assembly but not the Senate, would not compel the clergy to solemnize a same-sex marriage. But Ball said the language should be stronger.
Gay-rights advocates and conservative groups are heavily lobbying the undecided lawmakers, as well as other potential fence-sitters, before the legislative session ends June 20. Without a vote this session, it's unlikely one would be taken next year when all 212 state lawmakers will be up for election.Brian Ellner, New York strategist for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, said there are numerous lawmakers deciding where they stand on the issue, not just the eight identified by Gannett.
"I think there are many undecided members of the Senate, and we are working very hard to make it clear to all of them that this is, of course, a moderate mainstream issue that a supermajority of New Yorkers support — and that the time is now," he said.
The pressure is in the Senate because the bill has repeatedly passed the Democratic-led Assembly. It last passed the Assembly in 2009, then failed in the Senate even though Democrats held a slim 32-30 seat majority. None of the 30 Senate Republicans voted for it, while eight Democrats also voted no. It failed 24-38.
Now Republicans have a 32-30 majority.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is stepping up his lobbying of the undecided lawmakers, personally encouraging their support of the bill. Cuomo has made passing the measure one of his top priorities before the legislative session ends.
The governor's popularity and ability so far in his first year in office to cajole lawmakers is viewed as key to the bill's success.
A Siena College poll last month found a record 58 percent of New Yorkers support the bill. Same-sex marriage is legal in five states: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.