One of New York’s legislative shortcomings of particular concern to the Brennan Center is the lack of committee hearings where experts and the public can provide input on legislation under committee consideration and issues of public concern. While some states require such hearings on every bill, our 2004 report found that less than 1 percent of major legislation that passed the New York legislature between 1997 and 2001 received a hearing in either chamber.
Given this dismal track record and our high hopes for reform in the Senate this year, we were pleased when the Elections Committee announced a hearing about several crucial election-related issues, including the deadline for declaring party affiliation and notice of voting eligibility for people with felony convictions, both issues on which Brennan Center experts testified. The hearing was a particularly welcome move given the Elections Committee’s historic failure to hold hearings even when the federal government sued the state over New York’s noncompliance with federal election law, as we discussed in our 2008 report.
As always seems to be the case in New York, this can only be called an incremental improvement: not a single committee member aside from the chair attended the hearing, which was held in New York City last Friday. While holding hearings is an important first step, the efforts of public contributors and the legislators who do attend the hearings are diminished by the absence of committee members who have the power to promote or kill the legislation at hand. Hearings should be a forum for the open exchange of ideas between legislators and the public, not just an audience with the committee chair.
And rather than have a hearing on ten bills at once, as the Elections Committee did, we’d really like to see committees deal with one bill at a time. Ten bills in a single hearing is fine (if a little much), but at least separating out witnesses and questions by bill would allow committee members to devote attention to each bill separately.
At the end of the day, our message to the Senate on committee hearings is the same as our message on the party affiliation legislation before the Elections Committee: You’re moving in the right direction, but you’re still lagging behind.