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Citizens Who Stand Up Tall for Reform cannot be Brushed Aside

Published: September 18, 2004

Democrat and Chronicle
September 18, 2004

Citizens Who Stand Up Tall for Reform cannot be Brushed Aside
By Scott Schell

Rochesterians know well that New York’s Legislature is broken. The Democrat and Chronicle speaks loudly and often about the problem and its consequences for the economic development of Rochester and its civic life.

From Medicaid reform to school funding, the Albany record is one of inaction. Representative democracy in New York state is alive more in name than in reality, and we all suffer as a result.

The important question is no longer whether the Legislature functions poorly and should be reformed. On that, there is broad agreement across the state and political spectrum.

The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform,’’ the report and recommendations for reform released by my organization, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, on July 21, simply provided a wealth of empirical evidence confirming that public debate and deliberation are very rare commodities, indeed, in Albany.

The important question now is: What can be done to change this well-known, much-lamented, and undeniably harmful state of affairs? How can we reform a system defined by its resistance to change?

Working with local chambers of commerce, newspapers2C think tanks, and other groups, the Brennan Center for Justice is organizing town hall meetings from Buffalo to Long Island.

Editorial pages continue to beat the drum for change. Voters should make calls, send letters or e-mail messages to their state representatives.

There are some early talks about a rally in Albany. Public pressure on the people we elect to work for us is the only certain way to achieve reform.

Another important question: Why would Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver or Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno support reform if it means relinquishing some power?

To start with, in their private party conferences, rank-and-file representatives are undoubtedly telling the leaders about the growing public outcry over Albany’s way of doing business.

No people like to be constantly pummeled for the sorry state of the organization in which they work.

It is only a matter of time before New York’s Legislature more closely resembles deliberative legislative bodies that govern many other states.

On Jan. 5, 2005, both the Assembly and the Senate must adopt new rules. This marks a real opportunity for change. In a world full of politicians concerned about their legacy, doesn’t anyone want to go down in history as a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt, the bold, courageous reformer of a failed and unpopular system?

Scott Schell is Director of Public Affairs for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 161 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013.