Lost in the Shadows: The Fight for a Senate Vote on Wetlands Protection Legislation

May 25, 2005

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This report details how the leadership of the New York Senate used legislative rules to stymie public debate and consideration of a widely supported piece of legislation.

The New York Legislature’s internal operating rules are still in need of significant reform. To their credit, both chambers made changes to their rules earlier this year. Several of those changes enhanced the transparency and deliberativeness of the legislative process, particularly in the Assembly. But even after those changes, it is far too difficult for lawmakers to get bills that have been voted favorably out of committee, or have the support of a majority of a chamber, onto the legislative floor for debate and vote by the entire body.

The result is that, too often, the Legislature fails to publicly debate, consider or vote upon legislation that a majority of its members claim to support. Not only are rank-and-file members deprived of an opportunity to debate and vote on popular legislation, but the public is equally deprived of the opportunity to obtain full consideration of such legislation and to discern whom they should hold responsible for a failure of passage.

Recent attempts to amend New York’s wetlands preservation laws provide a textbook example of this problem. The governor and the great majority of legislators in both chambers have publicly stated that they favor measures to increase New York’s wetlands preservation laws. A wetlands preservation bill passed through the full Assembly and was voted out of the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee (chaired by the bill’s sponsor) by overwhelming margins in both 2004 and 2005. And just last week, Governor Pataki announced introduction of his own legislation to increase New York’s wetlands protection. In spite of this broad support, the Senate leadership has used its operating rules to prevent wetlands preservation legislation from reaching the Senate floor for debate and a vote. It has done this without any public explanation.

The Brennan Center for Justice takes no position on the merits of the current Senate proposal to amend New York’s wetlands preservation laws. But the recent history of that legislation provides tangible evidence of the legislature’s lack of transparency. It also highlights the enormous roadblocks to full consideration faced by important legislation, even where such legislation has garnered overwhelming support among rank-and-file members.