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Efforts to Get a Senate Vote on Wetlands Preservation Hill Highlights Need for Legislative Rules Reform

May 25, 2005

For Immediate Release
Monday, May 25, 2005

Contact Information:
Jeremy Creelan, 212 992–8642 or 917–693–9620
Leila Goldmark, 914 422–4126
Laura Haight, 518 436–0876
Jeff Jones, 518 462–5526
John Stouffer, 518 426–9144

Efforts to Get a Senate Vote on Wetlands Preservation Bill Highlights Need for Legislative Rules Reforms
Major Environmental Organizations Endorse Brennan Center Legislative Process Reforms to Reduce Barriers to Significant Legislation and Increase Transparency

Albany, New York Today, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law released a case study entitled Lost in the Shadows: The Fight For a Senate Vote on Wetlands Protection Legislation, and joined New York States major environmental advocacy organizations in appealing for further reforms to the legislative rules in the Senate and the Assembly. Joining with the Brennan Center were representatives of Environmental Advocates, NYPIRG, Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club. Together, these environmental organizations called for changes that would remove barriers to the full consideration of bills that have garnered the support of a majority of members, and increase transparency in the process of bringing bills to the floor.

To their credit, both chambers of the New York State Legislature made much-needed changes to their internal operating rules earlier this year. As detailed in the case study, however, much more needs to be done. The thwarted efforts of environmental advocates to obtain a Senate debate and vote on wetlands preservation legislation demonstrate the continued lack of transparency in New Yorks legislative process and the roadblocks to full consideration of important legislation even where such legislation has garnered the support of a majority of members. Too often, the Legislature fails to publicly debate, consider or vote upon legislation that a majority of its members and even the relevant standing committee 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 to act.

In this case, a bill to expand state wetlands protection, the Clean Water/Flood Prevention Act (A.2048/S.2081) passed the full Assembly and was voted out of the Senates Environmental Conservation Committee (chaired by the bills sponsor) by overwhelming margins in both 2004 and 2005. It is supported by at least 49 of 62 Senators. Nevertheless, the current Senate rules facilitate the Majority Leaders ability to prevent the bill from reaching the Senate floor for debate and a vote without any public explanation or record.

Without a full chamber vote, the people of New York State will go yet another year without this critical issue being addressed or even debated publicly in their State Senate. Nor will they even know why this failure occurred.

John Stouffer, Legislative Director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter said, Safe, clean water is our states most vital resource and protecting wetlands is the most effective way to keep our water clean. In spite of this, the rules that govern the state Senate have prevented legislation to protect wetlands from coming to the Senate floor for a vote. Reforms identified by the Brennan Center would ensure that vital legislation like the Clean Water/Flood Prevention Act, S.2081, is addressed. The Sierra Club supports the Brennan Centers reform agenda.

“Environmental Advocates of New York enthusiastically supports the Brennan Center’s recommendations to make the New York State Legislature more accountable and transparent,” said Jeff Jones, Communications Director for Environmental Advocates of New York. Legislation to protect New York State’s threatened wetlands is one of the environmental movement’s Super Bills for 2005. New Yorkers are coming to realize how important wetlands are for clean drinking water and flood protection and there is increasing support for taking action, both from citizens and from lawmakers. There is no longer any reason or justification for blocking a vote on this bill. It’s time for the Senate leadership to let the democratic process work.

“The wetlands bill is mired in Albany because of outdated rules that need to be changed,” said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for NYPIRG. “This report documents how these rules are standing in the way of protecting New York’s environment and our drinking water.”

The Brennan Center report clearly documents the unnecessary procedural impediments for getting major bills many of which are critical for protecting our communities, public health, drinking water supplies—through the New York State legislature, said Leila Goldmark, Watershed Attorney for Riverkeeper, Inc. Riverkeeper joins in the demand for rule changes that would ensure these bills are brought to the floor for open, on-the-record debate and a full Senate vote.

The Assembly and, to a lesser degree, the Senate improved their internal rules in limited but important ways this year. Unfortunately, they failed to address one of the key roadblocks to efficient and full consideration of legislation the opaque process by which it is determined whether bills will actually reach the floor for a debate and vote. Whatever ones position on wetland protection happens to be, New Yorkers deserve a transparent process that guarantees that bills that have been reported favorably out of the relevant committee and endorsed by a majority of senators are debated and voted on by the full Senate, said Jeremy Creelan, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The case study focuses on the following reforms to improve the process of bringing bills to the floor:

create a way for committee members in the Senate to force a timely and on the record committee vote on a particular bill, even over the objection of a committee chairperson;

require committee members in the Senate to be present for committee votes, and eliminate proxy voting of any kind;

further relax New Yorks limits on discharge motions in both chambers, so that motions to discharge may be (a) made at any time in the legislative session, (b) considered by the full chamber within a day of being made, and (c) debated by the entire chamber;
and provide a mechanism for rank-and-file legislators in the Senate and Assembly to bring bills that have been voted favorably out of committee, or have the support of a majority of members, to the floor for debate and a vote (even over the objection of the Majority Leader or Speaker).