2004-08-13 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

The New York State Legislature is often looked at as “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

It is not often that the New York Times, The New York Post and the New York Daily News ever agree on anything.

Yet, all three papers agree that there is something rotten in Albany.

The New York Times used its entire editorial page on July 25 to posit that the State Senate and the Assembly are “New York’s Fake Legislature.”

The New York Post called the legislature “New York’s Loafing Leaders.”

The Daily News, in two editorials, called New York State’s rulemakers “The Worst Legislature in America,” and then urged editorially to “Bring Democracy To [the] State Legislature.”

Perhaps the “straw that broke the camel’s back” is once again the legislature’s failure to come up with a budget by its own deadline. That makes 20 years in a row, a record unmatched by any other state legislature in the nation. At more than 130 days late, this year’s record is not only the worst in the legislature’s own history, but it is the worst in the nation.

NYU’s Brennan Center, a Liberal think tank, called New York’s legislature “The Worst In The Nation.”

The budget, however, is the least of the legislature’s problems. The Members of the legislature introduced almost 17,000 bills last year, more than double the amount introduced by any other state legislature in the nation. That might not have been too bad, except that it passed only four percent of those bills, less than 700. And, some would argue, many of the small amount of bills the legislature passed did more harm than good.

The leadership of our two houses controls the membership so closely that only bills that the leadership wants to be passed are passed. That control, by Joe Bruno in the Senate and Sheldon Silver in the Assembly is total.

Audrey Pheffer, who represents the west end of the peninsula, for example, has been in the legislature more than a dozen years and has not once voted against the leadership.

Witness the fact that from 1997 to 2001, the State Senate voted on 7,109 bills. Every single one of those bills passed with large majorities. During the same period of time, the Assembly voted on 4,365 bills. Every single one passed. Fewer than 10 percent of the bills ever went to committee for hearings despite the fact that the legislature has more committees than any other in the nation. A full 95 percent of the votes are taken with no debate whatsoever.. .There is no need for committee hearings or debate, because the fate of the bills was a foregone conclusion. No bill gets voted on until the leadership wants it passed.

Bruno likes it that way. He told The Daily News that allowing an open committee system would lead to chaos.

What happens then, is that legislators propose bills to satisfy their constituents at home, safe in the knowledge that those bills will never see the light of day unless the leadership wants them passed.

“What about the other 16,892 bills that did not make it into law,” the New York Times asks and then answers. “Most are for the record only. Some are meant to allow legislators to boast in voters (in state-paid mailings) that they ‘tried’ to do something for them. Other bills are meant to convince Albany’s flush lobbyists that a legislator did enough to earn a nice, fat campaign contribution.”

That same New York Times editorial summed it up best.

“The most galling part of watching the New York State Legislature in action is the sight of thousands of students innocently touring the State Capitol. Their teachers are usually telling them about how democracy works, how Teddy Roosevelt and Al Smith once roamed these very halls, how Mr. Bill becomes Mr. Law in Albany. In reality, what these crowds of young people see is men and women on public salaries going through the motions. The whole place might as well be made of cardboard.”

What can be done to make the legislature more “small-d” democratic and more responsive to the people it purports to represent?

The Daily News has some suggestions that would form the beginning of a solution, although the real solution would be to diminish the power of the leadership to bring members into line on every vote.

Stop “empty-seat voting.” Under the present rules, once members sign in for the day, their vote is recorded as “yes” even if they disappear or leave town for the rest of the day.

Require committees to meet and debate the issues prior to the time a bill is passed.

Allow committee chairs to bring bills to the floor rather than giving that power to one person in a leadership position.

Create the same kind of conference committees that the federal government uses to argue differences between Senate and Assembly versions of a bill. Now, those differences are worked out by the leadership alone in the proverbial “smoke filled room.”

Take away the leadership’s right to dole out stipends and committee chairs that bring lots of money to legislators. Doling out the perks and the money often leads to the ability to browbeat recalcitrant legislators into line.

It is clear that something needs to be done.

When the legislature was contemplating changing the governance of the New York City Public Schools, Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer held two hearings in Rockaway.

Six people showed up at one and a dozen at the other.

Pheffer, who sat on the committee that came up with the new governance law, loudly proclaimed that she was doing what her constituents wanted, even though only a handful showed.

The real work was done by the leadership, and Pheffer, State Senator Malcolm Smith and new Assembly member Michelle Titus simply went along.

That is the byword of the State Legislator: Go along to get along.

That may serve Pheffer, Smith and Titus well. It certainly does not serve their constituents well.

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