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Research Report

Still Broken: New York State Legislative Reform 2008 Update

Published: January 2, 2009

“Dysfunctional” is the adjective ascribed to the New York State Legislature by two reports issued by the Brennan Center for Justice: The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform released in 2004 and the follow up, Unfinished Business: New York State Legislative Reform 2006 Update.

The legislative leadership largely dismissed the findings of the 2004 report. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told the New York Times, “Nothing happens here in Albany, in the Assembly, without the input of the rank-and-file legislators.” Joe Bruno, who recently left the Senate after serving for 14 years as its Majority Leader, called the report “pure nonsense” and equated a more democratic process with that of a Third World country.

Yet when the Legislature came back into session in early 2005, the Leaders announced rules changes—the first time in a generation—accompanied by self-congratulatory fanfare. In press releases that described the reforms’ aspirational effect on the Legislature, the Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader claimed that the new rules would usher in an era of openness, effectiveness, and accountability. The Senate even went so far as to claim that it addressed most of the recommendations made by the Brennan Center.

Unfinished Business: New York State Legislative Reform 2006 Update concluded that the changes on the whole, while a good start, were by no means transformative. The Legislature failed to adopt a comprehensive set of new rules that incorporated the Brennan Center’s recommendations for making the legislative process more robust and democratic. Of the changes that the legislature did adopt, some, quite cynically, codified the status quo in new ways. The continued presence of these rules stifles rigorous deliberation and debate and hobbles the sincere efforts of a number of rank-and-file legislators to represent the best interests of their constituents and the state as a whole.

In 2006 and 2007, most standing committees met infrequently or not at all. There were almost no hearings on major legislation. Not a single major bill was the subject of a detailed committee report. Leadership maintained near total control over what bills reached the floor. And on the floor, there was little substantive debate; every bill brought to the floor for a vote in either chamber passed.

The good news is that, for the first time in years, there is reason to hope that at least one chamber will begin to make the structural changes that could remake the legislature. Come January, majority control of the Senate may shift to the Democrats. In 2007, likely incoming Senate President Pro Tempore Malcolm Smith introduced new rules in line with our previous recommendations (the one-house resolution failed along a party-line vote). During a Reform Day New York panel last year, Senator Smith reaffirmed his commitment to introducing the same package of rules reform “without question” if the Democrats regained the majority. He previously stated, “We cannot truly reform the legislative process in Albany until we have successfully reformed the rules that govern the Legislature.” More recently, Senator Smith told the New York Times that under his leadership, the Senate “would be more transparent, more participatory.” Smith reaffirmed that rules reform under a Democratic majority would include broader latitude for members to put bills on committee agendas or vote them out of committee and onto the floor, abolishment of secretive canvass of agreement votes and restrictions on discharge motions, and the enactment of new rules requiring committee members to be physically present to vote.