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Why Legislative Rules Still Matter

In Albany, it may be darkest just before the dawn.

  • Laura Seago
March 31, 2009

Cross posted from ReformNY

Yesterday, the day 3000 pages of budget bills hit New York state legislators’ desks in advance of a vote scheduled for only 48 hours later, the Times ran a story on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s unprecedented power in Albany. The story details Silver’s stranglehold on the legislative process in general, and the budget process in particular, attributing this year’s secret-even-for-Albany negotiations to Silver’s penchant for closed-door meetings and something hovering between oligarchy and autocracy. Readers of the article could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve never been further from meaningful reform in Albany, but we prefer to see the article as an illustration of why legislative rules are so important—and why it may be darkest just before the dawn.

It will take more than one or two individuals to loosen the Speaker’s 15-year grip on the legislative process; the legislature needs the weight of an entire chamber to act as a countervailing force. A robust committee process, regular and substantive legislative analysis, and rules that protect the voices of rank-and-file members can all help ensure that the locus of power in the legislature lies with the body of representatives elected by New York voters, and not with any one individual. With the recommendations of its Temporary Committee on Rules Reform due in just a week or two, the Senate may well become this essential counterbalance to unchecked power.

Now back to those budget bills. Speaker Silver has often touted the punctuality of his budgets, arguing that open budget negotiations might get in the way of meeting the state deadline. Looking around the country during budget season, it’s clear that this is a false tradeoff. Ohio, faced with the same number of weeks to consider its budget as New York, holds extensive budget hearings. Virginia, acting under similar time constraints, posts all budget documents, including early proposals, on a website where members of the public are welcome to comment. A total of nine states have budget deadlines similar to New York’s, but only New York shuts rank-and-file legislators and the general public so completely out of its budget process.