The Sad State of New York's Government

August 1, 2004

The Buffalo News

Sunday, August 1, 2004

The Sad State of New York’s Government

Legislature is in Desperate Need of a Leader Who Can Initiate Reform

By Scott Schell

The narrator of “All the Kings Men”, Robert Penn Warrens classic novel of American politics, asks about Willie Stark, the books central character:

What made him think I wanted to hear about what the state needed? Hell, I knew. Everybody knew. It wasnt any secret. What it needed was some decent government. But who the hell was going to give it? And who cared if nobody did or ever did?

Readers of the novel know that the fictional Willie Stark, based on real-life Depression-era Louisiana governor Huey Long, was no paragon of virtue; but he learned to make people care by hitting them between the eyes with the cold, hard truth.

The cold, hard truth about the current state of democracy in New York State, as documented by a report released this week by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is this: There is no representative democracy in New York State. Not in the state legislature. Not in any form that would be remotely recognizable to a high school student who paid attention in civics class.

As detailed in the report, The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform, the states legislative bodies are measurably the most dysfunctional and least democratic in the nation. Our state, far more than the other 49 and the U.S. Congress, excludes rank-and-file lawmakers and the citizens they represent from the legislative process. Or, as Willie Stark might have said, if youre counting on the people you sent to Albany to speak out for you when laws are made, forget about it; they literally dont have a chance.

Exaggeration? Consider these facts and figures from the Brennan Centers analysis:

  • From 1997 to 2001, fewer than 5 percent of the major bills passed by the Assembly or the Senate were debated on the floor of the respective chambers.
  • From 1997 to 2001, only 0.5 percent of the major bills passed by the Assembly received a committee hearing, and only 0.7 percent of the major bills passed by the Senate were studied at a hearing.
  • From 1997 to 2001, the State Senate voted on 7,109 bills; not a single bill was voted down.
  • From 1997 to 1999, the Assembly voted on 4,365 bills; not a single bill was voted down.
  • New Yorks is the only legislature that routinely allows empty seat voting, a practice by which absent legislators have their votes automatically recorded as a yea. (When this practice recently became prevalent in Massachusetts, a public outcry quickly ended it.)

Still, who really cares if your elected Assemblyman is actually physically present when he casts a vote; or if hearings are held to learn the views of the public concerning a piece of legislation, or if the State Senate engages in a public debate before voting on a bill, or if passage of a law is ever anything other than a foregone conclusion by the time it reaches the floor of the Assembly, or if committee chairs can hire and fire their staff? Who really cares if New York has a functioning legislature?

In growing numbers, the people of this state from the left and the right, the heads of unions and presidents of local chambers of commerce, school board executives and business coalition chiefs, leaders of conservative think tanks and leaders of good government groups, do care. And so should you.

They care because state government is not addressing their policy issues, whether the particular agenda item is labeled liberal or conservative or something in between. They care because problems that can be fixed too too often go unattended, even though sensible solutions are well within reach.

The Cost

Those who dismiss the absence of functioning legislative committees and the other breakdowns in the Assembly and Senate as being unrelated to their lives important only to good government junkies like me are making a mistake. The damage done by New Yorks legislative dysfunction is all around us:

  • Albanys failure to enact Medicaid reforms means that lessening the financial burdens on local government remains an unfulfilled promise, and county executives are being forced to make cuts in other programs.
  • Some school boards, still without the guidance of a state budget and without any certainty about the level of state aid, are looking at eliminating summer school programs.
  • College enrollment of low-income students will likely decline if the legislature continues its silence in response to Governor Patakis proposed deferral of some Tuition Assistance Program awards until after students graduate.
  • The Legislature failed to meet its July 30 deadline for fixing the states school funding system, as mandated by court order.

This summer 2004 snapshot of the costs borne by New Yorks citizens because of Albanys inadequacy is anything but unusual.

Consider this telling example of the high price of chronic legislative dysfunction. For more than a decade, legislation to clean up some 800 contaminated industrial sites across the state known as brownfields remained bottled up in Albany despite the serious health risks posed by these toxic hazards. The20Senate and Assembly each had passed bills, but without functioning conference committees the bills differences always went unresolved.

Then in June of last year, the governor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Majority Leader Joseph Bruno reached agreement. With the sessions end fast approaching, final passage was rushed through the two chambers, serious debate and review were jettisoned in standard Albany fashion and the Senate mistakenly passed the wrong version of the long sought legislation. New York still had no brownfields law.

Three months later, a special one-day session of the Senate was convened to correct the mistake. The cost? The insult of adding 3 months onto the injury of a 10-year delay in protecting communities from severe environmental risks.

Instead of responding with outrage, those most knowledgeable about Albanys peculiar ways are the most cynical, so familiar with the calcified status quo that they sincerely dismiss calls for reform as na"ve.

A courageous and skillful reformer, a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt, could seize this opportunity and make history in New York politics, but none has yet stepped forward. How, then, will the system ever change?

A Real Shot at Reform

A new reform effort focused on January 2005 may hold the answer. When New Yorks newly constituted legislature convenes in January of every odd-numbered year, the Assembly and the Senate each adopt new rules. Unlike votes on legislation, these session-commencing votes on rules are mandatory; they must occur for the two chambers to open for business.

And the respective bodies adopt their rules independently, on their own authority. The finger pointing that so often is employed to excuse Albanys inaction on urgently needed legislation cannot come into play here. The Assembly relies on neither the Governor nor the other chamber in deciding to govern itself by a particular set of rules. The same goes for the Senate.

The blueprint for reform presented in the Brennan Centers report intends to take advantage of this date. The recommended package of common sense rules changes aims to harness the burgeoning energy for reform across the state and focus it on a scheduled moment of legislative action that cannot be evaded.

The package of reforms falls into four categories: First, the proposals would resuscitate the moribund legislative committees by, among other things, giving committee chairs the power to hire and fire their own staff and by requiring reported bills to be accompanied by a committee report.

Second, the proposals would prevent popular bills from being bottled up in committee and would make it easier for legislation with substantial support to come before the full Assembly or Senate. The recommended rules changes include making discharge motions a meaningful tool for moving bills with broad support from committee to chamber floor, and requiring every bill reported out of committee to be voted on by the full chamber within 60 days.

Third, the proposals would increase debate, deliberation, and review of legislation by, in part, doing away with empty seat voting and requiring our elected officials to be physically present in the chamber for their votes to be counted.

Fourth, to avoid the too common scenario in which similar bills with strong public support are separately passed by the Assembly and the Senate but fail to become law, the proposals would require the convening of a conference committee to resolve differences between the two chambers, when requested by a bills lead sponsors.

The report and its recommendations are supported by dozens of groups from across the political spectrum. Many of New Yorks major newspapers, from upstate and downstate, including The Buffalo News, have used their editorial pages to urge the legislature to act on these proposals.

In the next five months, communities across New York will convene town hall meetings to build pressure for change.

Silver and Bruno have the report. The elected officials who work for you and me in Albany will soon have the report as well, and, with it, they will have a clear chance, one that has not existed in a very long time, to lift New York out of dead last among the states of this nation in the quality of its legislature.

Everybody knows. Its not any secret. What is needed is some decent government in Albany.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Schell is public affairs director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.