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The Trouble with Albany Today

Albany did it again. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan ground to a halt at the intersection of undemocratic legislative rules and absurdly lax campaign finance laws…

  • Lawrence Norden & Andrew Stengel
April 18, 2008

* Cross-posted from a Newsday op-ed 

Albany Albany did it again. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan ground to a halt at the intersection of undemocratic legislative rules and absurdly lax campaign finance laws. Even the many Long Islanders who were against the plan should be appalled by the way in which it was killed. All New Yorkers should be. This unfortunate episode in how the Albany world turns—or in this case, doesn’t—provides a “Law & Order”-like summation for the long-overdue need for broad state reform.

Though the plan was supported by the mayor and the City Council, and would have brought hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to New York, it never even received public debate, not to mention a vote in the legislature. Given the publicity that the mayor’s congestion pricing plan had received, you have to wonder why the legislature didn’t treat this bill a little differently. Why risk making so public the undemocratic way in which Albany works?

Unfortunately, the undemocratic demise of congestion pricing is simply one of the highest-profile examples of business as usual in Albany. As the Brennan Center detailed in reports in 2004 and 2006, floor debate is a rarity for major legislation. Between 1997 and 2001, only about one in 20 bills in either house received substantive debate. Nearly 90 percent of major laws in both the Assembly and Senate passed without any discussion at all.

The Assembly Democrats met behind closed doors for three days before announcing this plan would not be brought to the floor. What was said in the 20-plus hours the Democrats met, and who said it? How did the Democratic members vote in their secret meetings, and would a majority of legislators have supported congestion pricing if Republicans were allowed to vote? We’ll never know for certain.

Assembly members who have publicly defended the secretive defeat of congestion pricing have argued that they should be credited for refusing to cut a “three-men-in-a-room” deal, referring to the way laws are made in Albany—the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate Majority Leader negotiate everything under wraps. In this case, it was no better: One party in a room held secret discussions that killed the bill.

Some members have also pointed out that a public hearing on the congestion plan was held last June. This is true, but so what? That doesn’t justify stymieing the bill in such a secretive way. And that hearing wasn’t on the proposal the Assembly Democrats killed last week. The plan had evolved over the past 10 months, and back then it was unclear how much federal aid New York would qualify for.

Finally, legislators have noted that congestion pricing was introduced as a rules bill without named sponsors. This means that any supporter could have reintroduced the bill under his or her own name—and not a single member did. Of course, if someone had reintroduced it, Silver would have most likely directed the new bill to a committee where it would never see the light of day. The joke in Albany is that the Codes Committee is where bills go to die.

Added to the byzantine ways bills are handled in Albany is the unfortunate fact that New York has among the weakest campaign finance regulations in the nation. In addition to sky-high contribution limits, the state allows unlimited donations to party housekeeping accounts, a form of soft money that the federal government banned in 2002.

Earlier this year, the mayor donated $500,000 to the state Republican Party, which was awfully curious timing for such largesse. In the end, it didn’t get him anything. But a check of that size caused opponents of the plan to fear that Bloomberg might have helped fund their challengers in the fall. If Albany wants to curb the influence of wealthy mayors, wealthy lobbyists and wealthy mayor-lobbyists, then it should get serious about removing the influence of money altogether and institute public campaign financing.

Some news reports blamed the death of congestion pricing on Bloomberg’s alleged heavy-handed approach. But it wasn’t the mayor who slew the congestion pricing beast, it was Albany’s dysfunction. The unfortunate affair may in fact pay dividends, however: Because of the way it was handled, the public is more aware than ever of the strange ways of Albany and is likely to side with accountability come November. The crack in Albany’s dam may finally have arrived.