2009-01-09 / Editorial/Opinion

A Chance To Reform Our 'Dysfunctional' State Legislature

Experts at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University have called the New York State Legislature "the most dysfunctional in the nation." That is an understatement. For years, both the Assembly and the Senate have been controlled by strong, despotic leaders who brooked no dissention from the elected members of the body and allowed very little input from our elected officials. It was "three men in a closed room," and little got done outside that room. For years, the three men were the governor, the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the Assembly. As an example of how business is done in our state, the state's 212 lawmakers introduced 18,239 bills and resolutions in 2008 - triple the number of any other state legislature in the nation, and half again more than the federal Congress. More than 90 percent of them went no further than the press release issued by the assembly member or senator who proposed the bill. They died because there is no effective committee procedure and because one of the three men behind the closed door did not like what the bill proposed. Legislative committees rarely meet, never issue reports, and never make recommendations, because their recommendations would not matter at all. The body does not make a decision until the three men tell them to. Of the 8,457 votes cast in Assembly committees last year, only 76 were "no" votes and that is because the committee members were told to vote that way. Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, for example, has held her seat in the Assembly for nearly 20 years and has never once bucked Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Quite a record. Up until now, the Assembly has been controlled by the Democrats and the Senate by the Republicans. Even this year, when the Democrats hold a three-member majority in the Senate, three Democrats have held the leadership hostage by threatening to join with the Republicans to keep them in power. Even though local Senator Malcolm Smith cut a deal with the three dissidents for the Democrats to take power, it will be some time before the public can gauge just that that deal portends. With a new governor and a new Democratic majority in the Senate, this could be the time to reform the legislature, to open it up to its members, to strengthen the committee system and allow legislators some power for the first time in 20 years. It is time to end the "three men behind locked doors" mentality and to move on with the public's business.

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