Friday, June 30, 2006

Legislative Inefficiency: The More Things Change

In our 2004 report, we pointed to the huge number of bills introduced in each legislative chamber. Between 1997 and 2001, 45,420 bills were introduced in the full Assembly, or roughly 9,000 per year. In the Senate, it was 31,734 over those same five years, or about 6,000 per year. We noted at the time that "more bills were introduced in the New York State Legislature than in any other state."

Are things different in 2006? Not really. Capitol Confidental reports that 10,374 bills were introduced in the Assembly and 7,264 in the Senate in 2006, more than any of the years we covered in our original report.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Interesting news on the judiciary...

The New York Times reported last week that New York Governor George Pataki will have the chance to replace Judge George Bundy Smith, a Court of Appeals judge who many regard to be the most liberal in the state, when Judge Smith’s 14-year term ends this September. However, Judge Smith has filed papers seeking a second term. If re-appointed, he would serve until the end of next year when he turns 70, the mandatory retirement age, and when a new governor will be in office. Although Governor Pataki, a Republican, would like to shift New York’s court to the right and he has publicly opposed Judge Smith’s decision striking down the state’s death penalty law, some legal figures are already lobbying for his reappointment. Judge Smith, who is the only black judge on the state’s highest court, is very well respected within the legal community.

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

More ethical judicial campaigns?

The Times Union reported last week that a new rule approved by the New York Administrative Board of the Courts will require the state’s judicial candidates to attend ethics training.

Any step toward more ethical government in New York is a good one.

Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief administrative judge, said that “[t]his new program will ensure that those running for judicial office will have all the information and guidance they need to conduct a fair, dignified campaign.” The Judicial Campaign Ethics Center will conduct the training, a two-hour program discussing court rules relevant to judicial candidates as well as ethical questions that arise in hypothetical campaign situations. The program is the latest reform spurred by recommendations from the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections, which Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye impaneled to bolster public confidence in the judiciary and promote ethical judicial campaigns.

Categories: General, Governmental Ethics, Judicial Selection

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Machinery of Democracy

Today the Brennan Center Task Force on Voting System Security released a report and policy proposals concluding that all three of the nation’s most commonly purchased electronic voting systems are vulnerable to software attacks that could threaten the integrity of a state or national election. New York can learn a thing or two from this report. As we all know, in March, the Justice Department sued New York State for failing to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, which called on the states to overhaul their voting systems.

Our report was put together by the Security Task Force, a team of government and private sector scientists, voting machine experts, and security professionals on the Task Force worked together for more than a year. The members of the non-partisan panel were drawn from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (“NIST”), the Election Assistance Commission (“EAC”), the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, leading research universities, and include many of the nation’s foremost security experts.

The Task Force surveyed hundreds of election officials around the country; categorized over 120 security threats; and evaluated countermeasures for repelling attacks. The study examined each of the three most commonly purchased electronic voting systems: electronic machines (“DREs”) with – and without – a voter verified paper trail, and precinct-counted optical scan systems (“PCOS”). The report, The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World, is the first-ever systematic analysis of security vulnerabilities in each of these systems. The report’s findings include:

• All of the most commonly purchased electronic voting systems have significant security and reliability vulnerabilities. All three systems are equally vulnerable to an attack involving the insertion of corrupt software or other software attack programs designed to take over a voting machine.
• Automatic audits, done randomly and transparently, are necessary if paper records are to enhance security. The report called into question basic assumptions of many election officials by finding that the systems in 14 states using voter-verified paper records but doing so without requiring automatic audits are of “questionable security value.”
• Wireless components on voting machines are particularly vulnerable to attack. The report finds that machines with wireless components could be attacked by “virtually any member of the public with some knowledge of software and a simple device with wireless capabilities, such as a PDA.”
• The vast majority of states have not implemented election procedures or countermeasures to detect a software attack even though the most troubling vulnerabilities of each system can be substantially remedied.

Stay tuned for our upcoming report on voting machine accessibility, usability, and cost.

Categories: General, Voting

United in Disgust

With New York State’s legislative session recently concluded, local newspapers have been editorializing like mad about its failures and successes. Mainly, they have focused on the failures. UpstateBlog has a roundup of economic competitiveness complaints. What’s striking in this litany is how diverse are the groups that are unhappy with the way Albany operates. People with very different interests and ideologies can agree that current legislative practices—dominated by the majority party (and one person within that party), bereft of meaningful debate or deliberation, unprofessional, idiosyncratic, opaque—do a disservice to New York citizens. This helps explain why such a broad coalition signed up to support the Brennan Center’s recommendations on rules reform.

Let’s hope the breadth of public dissatisfaction, as well as its depth, encourages legislators to take heed—and make the most of the opportunity to reform their rules in January 2007.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Omnipotent Leaders, Shadow Authorities: Welcome to New York

The Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin has a hard-hitting editorial today on the need to reform New York’s “strong leader”—er, make that “omnipotent leader”—system. Although New York has a proud history of producing great men and women, the editorial notes, there is no reason that a personality-centric ethic should export to the lawmaking process. How virtuous or talented the Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Majority Leader might be is irrelevant; concentrating so much power in the hands of two people in and of itself represents a breakdown of representative democracy. Only by standing up to their leaders and reforming house rules can the rank-and-file legislators begin to correct this power imbalance.

The editorial also calls attention to the issue of public authorities. New York has hundreds of these authorities, about which the general populace knows little. Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi calls them “an immense shadow government operating without meaningful oversight.” We understand that former State Senator Seymour P. Lachman and Robert Polner also take on the public authorities in their forthcoming book, Three Men in a Room. A serious, and sober, conversation about this issue is slowly beginning to take shape.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules, Governmental Ethics

Monday, June 26, 2006

The 4th Best Legislature?

The Times editorialized yesterday about the State Legislature's latest quest for a pay raise. Noting that it is presently the 4th best compensated state legislature in the country, the Times asks if our Senators and Assemblymembers shouldn't have some other priorities. "Money quote," so to speak:

Before voters countenance any more salary increases in Albany, they should demand that legislators fix their own ethics rules so those fund-raisers in the capital are banned while the Legislature is in session. They should make the job of being a legislator full time or, failing that, prohibit lawmakers from serving on committees that deal with issues in which they have a professional connection. They should establish a nonpartisan committee to fix legislative district boundaries, so elections really confer a mandate from the people.

We like those priorities. We'd add real legislative rules reform, so that legislature itself will be a more transparent and accountable body.

Categories: General, Governmental Ethics, Legislative Rules

Friday, June 23, 2006

More Assembly Appreciation

On June 21, the entire New York State Assembly took a significant step toward reducing barriers to civic participation by passing the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act (VRNRA), a bill that would notify individuals with felony convictions of their voting rights, facilitate voter registration, and improve communication between corrections and elections officials. As mentioned here and here , recent studies have documented that both elections officials and the formerly incarcerated frequently don't know the voting rights of those involved in the criminal justice system.

We would like to congratulate the Assembly and Committee on Election Law Chair Keith Wright for moving so quickly on this important piece of legislation and hope the Senate will do the same in next year’s session. The New York City and State Boards of Elections have also affirmed their dedication to voting rights in recent months, training local elections workers on proper eligibility requirements and providing accurate and clear information on felon voting rights to the public.

This move by the Assembly has taken place within the context of a larger national trend to eradicate archaic laws that strip those with felony convictions of their fundamental right to vote. Such laws directly contradict what we know about rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders as well as the core American value that citizens should be able to choose their government representatives. We’re encouraged by the Assembly’s action as well as the recent improvements made by the New York State and City Boards of Elections. However, many barriers to participation still remain. In 2004, 122,018 New Yorkers were disfranchised because of a felony conviction, not including the thousands of additional eligible voters who were potentially mislead by elections workers into believing they were ineligible to vote. The Assembly’s passage of the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act is an important step. We hope the entire legislature will pass this bill into law in the next session and strongly consider restoring voting rights to all New York citizens. An open and democratic New York deserves no less.

Scott Novakowski
Policy Analyst, Democracy Program
Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action

Guest Post

Categories: General, Voting

When Campaign Committees Lobby

According to Capitol Confidential, the State Lobbying Commission is reviewing whether or not some campaign committees in the state should have to register as lobbyists.

This follows a campaign by the "Friends of Pataki" urging people to contact their Senators and tell them not to override Pataki's budget vetoes this year. The campaign, according to Capitol Confidential, centered around a website called

We're intrigued.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance, Government Ethics

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Member Items -- The Not So Dirty Details

The Times Union has the goods on where, exactly, all that member item money went in 2005, 2004 and 2003.

But, the State Division of Budget won't say who requested these items, or how the money was used.

This is Albany's version of transparency.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

What Wasn't Considered

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle laments the State Legislature's rush to adjourn without considering bills important to the health of upstate New York.

As the Brennan Center has noted before, New York legislators enact a lower percentage of bills into law than all but two other legislatures. This is not because there is vigorous debate on the floor, where bills get voted down. On the contrary, almost every bill that gets to the floor gets approved without debate. It is because it is nearly impossible to get a bill to the floor without leadership's approval.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

NYU Report on Pay to Play in NYC

Yesterday we blogged about a new report on "pay-to-play" culture in NYC that found "contractors and lobbyists who do business with New York City government accounted for about 22.3 percent of campaign donations in the 2005 election cycle."

Here's a link to the report, which was prepared by students from the (NYU) Wagner School of Public Service’s Capstone Program. It represents a data analysis and comparison of information provided by the City’s new on-line VENDEX and lobbyist databases, with the information maintained in the CFB’s searchable Campaign Finance database.

We congratulate our colleauges at the Wagner School for a job well done.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance, Government Ethics

Timothy's Law -- Again

One of our big complaints about the way the Legislature works is that leadership in the Assembly and Senate can prevent extremely popular bills from ever coming to the floor for debate and a vote. This is problematic for a number of reasons: it is not particularly democratic; it lets rank-and-file legislators off the hook -- allowing them to claim to support popular bills that may be expensive without having to make any sacrifice for them; and it prevents New Yorkers from being able to hold their legislators accountable for failing to get legislation passed.

In our 2004 report we referenced Timothy's Law as an example of a bill that everyone seemed to support, but somehow never got to the Senate floor for a vote. Timothy's Law was named after a 12 year old boy who committed suicied. His death might have been prevented by psychological treatment that was not covered by his insurance and was, therefore, denied to him. The legislation would require New York's health insurers to cover treatment for mental illness and drug abuse.

In 2003, a majority of Senators sponsored Timothy's Law, but it never made it out of the Senate's Rules Committee. Today's Capitol Confidential notes that three years later, the law still hasn't passed the Senate (it has passed the Assembly). Advocates for the bill confronted Majority Leader Bruno in Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy on Tuesday during the first home game of the Valley Cats.

Supporters of greater wetlands protection in New York (see post below) take note: time may not be on your side, if Senate leadership isn't -- no matter how many other New Yorkers and Senators want your bill passed.

Categories: Legislative Rules

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Wetlands and the New York State Legislature

Linda Greenhouse reports in today's New York Times that the Supreme Court, yesterday, came very close to severely restricting the federal government's ability to protect the country's wetlands.

What does this have to do with the New York State Legislature, you may ask? A lot, it turns out. As Lawrence Norden, Associate Counsel at the Brennan Center wrote in an op-ed for Newsday last year, the State Senate's leadership has repeatedly bottled up a bill that would increase local protection of wetlands, despite the fact that 49 of 62 Senators have publicly expressed support for it.

In light of yesterday's Supreme Court decision, the Senate leadership's efforts to bottle up that bill look increasingly significant. Many fear the federal government's ability to protect wetlands will soon be further reduced.

49 rank-and-file Senators may want to make sure that New York State protects its own wetlands, with or without that federal protection. But in New York, their views and votes don't count if the Senate Leadership has other priorities.

Categories: Legislative Rules

How Does the Legislature Spell "Ethics"?

When you give a legislator a campaign contribution, where do you expect the money will go? To buy a pool cover? To pay for her car? A family trip to Europe, perhaps?

Our jointly released 2006 report, Strengthening Ethics in New York documents some personal use scandals in recent years.

In Newsday yesterday, Lauren Webber reported on the recently introduced Democratic Assembly campaign-finance legislation package. This package acknowledges the problem of personal use of campaign contributions, but does not actually restrict their use. Instead, it gives the state Board of Elections the power to decide regulations regarding spending of campaign funds. Color us skeptical.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) has introduced a stricter bill that specifies which expenses from the campaign coffers are acceptable and which are not:

Flanagan's bill - the first on this issue from a member of the Republican majority - may signal some willingness on the part of his reluctant Senate colleagues to approve campaign-finance reforms.

The spending issue was spotlighted earlier this year when Pete McGowan, the once-powerful former Islip supervisor, pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds for such personal expenses as a trip to Ireland and more than $5,000 in spa treatments and facials:

"Whether or not there will be serious three-way negotiations on an ethics package is now the biggest question," said Blair Horner, director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said the Senate is "looking at" Flanagan's bill.

We are hoping that the two houses and the Governor can reach agreement on an ethics package that strongly regulates personal use before the session ends Thursday.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance, Government Ethics

Judicial Remedy?

A lawsuit that could dramatically affect the way the New York State Legislature does business is snaking its way through the courts. As we noted last week the Appellate Division, First Department is currently considering Urban Justice Center v. Pataki, in which Democratic Senator Liz Krueger and Republican Assemblyman Tom Kirwan, joined by the Urban Justice Center, challenge the constitutionality of numerous legislative practices that enhance the power of majority parties and their leaders.

The lawsuit focuses on six methods used by the Speaker of the Assembly, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Governor—the proverbial “three men in a room”—to control the political process. These methods harm not only the values of representation and deliberation, according to the initial complaint, but also systematically disadvantage minority-party members and their constituents. To wit:

Unequal funding of member support: the Speaker and Majority Leader control the funds available for each member’s personal staff, office space, and other expenses, and allocate more money to party members.

Unequal member items: the Speaker and Majority Leader also control the funds for member-initiated projects, and use these “items” to their party’s political advantage.

Insurmountable obstacles to discharge motions: the houses’ rules make it prohibitively difficult for minority-party legislators to move bills out of committee and onto the floor.

Secret debates and votes: the legislative party conferences, where the parties hash out their positions on upcoming bills, are closed affairs.

Abuse of messages of necessity: the Speaker, Majority Leader, and Governor routinely use “messages of necessity” in cases where there is no necessity, and the Governor fails to sign these messages personally.

Leadership control over member pay: the Speaker and Majority Leader exploit the “Lulu” system of additional compensation for committee chairs (and, in lesser amounts, for ranking minority members) to sway the votes of members and their committees.

To followers of the Brennan Center’s work in this area, these charges may sound familiar; almost all of them echo arguments made in our 2004 report, The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform. The plaintiffs rely heavily on that report, which serves as Exhibit A. Whereas our work has focused on rules reform at the legislative level, the plaintiffs are seeking a judicial fix. They assert that the practices listed above violate the Equal Protection and Free Speech guarantees of the U.S. and New York State Constitutions, as well as several provisions specific to the latter.

At the State Supreme Court, Judge Solomon threw out many of the counts, but she allowed three to survive: the Equal Protection challenges to unequal funding for member support and unequal member items, and the state constitutional challenge to the Governor’s use of an “autopen” to sign messages of necessity (She also held that the Urban Justice Center lacks standing to be a plaintiff.) The State now seeks to dismiss these causes of action, while Krueger and Kirwan seek to reinstate the 15-odd other claims that Judge Solomon foreclosed.

Regardless of how the courts eventually rule, this suit should serve as a further wake-up call to the Legislature—and a spur to make the most of the rules-reform window opening up in January 2007. Judge Solomon begins her opinion by noting that “[a]ny New Yorker would find [the Brennan Center’s study and follow-on commentary] disheartening, as do I.” Any New Yorker, that is, would find troubling the democratic harms that result from a legislative process so concentrated in the hands of three people, so opaque to the public, so averse to substantive debate and professional policymaking, so tilted in favor of the majority party.

Here’s a thought experiment to put that last point in perspective: imagine if the Speaker, Majority Leader, and Governor were all from the same party. These individuals would face precious few external checks on their power, and there would no longer be an internal check on their coordinated action. They would not merely dominate the legislative process; they would monopolize it. Three men in a room would become one-party rule.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Pay to Play in NYC: The Power of Deductive Reasoning

Sewell Chan reports in today's New York Times that "contractors and lobbyists who do business with New York City government accounted for about 22.3 percent of campaign donations in the 2005 election cycle" according to a new report. The report's authors are students at NYU's Wagner school. They write that "there are still citizens who believe that special-interest donors wield undue influence over government officials and that 'pay to play' is the dominant modus operandi."

We wonder where this idea could come from?

Categories: General, Governmental Ethics, Campaign Finance

Monday, June 19, 2006

The BC Salutes Our Good Assemblymembers

The Brennan Center has gotten a bit of a rap for only pointing out the problems in Albany. In fact, we realize that our state representatives do a lot of good. The most recent example is an action of the New York Assembly Committee on Election Law. It passed the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act late last week. This bill proposes to reduce barriers to voting by individuals with felony convictions.

Studies have shown that individuals with felony convictions who vote are less likely to return to jail. This should come as no surprise: citizens who are engaged in their communities are more likely to obey its rules. As Americans, one of our most important civic duties is to participate in our political process and vote. We should encourage the formerly incarcerated to partake in this duty, not bar them from it.

Just as importantly, restoring the right to vote for the formerly incarcerated is the right thing to do. Voting is a fundamental right to all free citizens in a democracy. People who have served their time return to their communities to work, pay taxes and send their children to neighborhood schools. As our neighbors, taxpayers and fellow Americans, they should be entitled to exercise the right to vote.

A recent survey conducted by the Brennan Center and Demos revealed that approximately half of all county boards of elections in New York State continue to illegally disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters with criminal convictions.

In New York, people on probation and those convicted of misdemeanors never lose the right to vote. Only those New Yorkers in prison or on parole for a felony conviction are barred from voting. However, as the survey results showed, there remains widespread confusion among elections officials about who is eligible to vote, and many people with felony convictions remain unaware of their voting rights.

The Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act, sponsored by Assemblyman Keith Wright, seeks to address some of these concerns by requiring “clear and systematic notice to individuals of their voting rights as they complete their maximum prison sentences or are discharged from parole.” The bill will also require criminal justice agencies to provide assistance with voter registration and voting by absentee ballot, and will assure that corrections and elections agencies share the data necessary to verify voter eligibility.

Coupled with efforts to better educate elections officials and criminal justice agencies, the Brennan Center hopes that the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act will ensure that people with felony convictions who are eligible to vote are informed about their voting rights so they can fully participate in the political process.

Categories: General, Voting

We're shocked, shocked!

We've previously posted on James Odato's excellent work in the Times Union uncovering the legislature's "secret" member item spending, which amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Why are some legislators so attached to these items and keeping them secret? Mr. Odtata has one explanation: they have been used to grease political machines and "encourage" political donations.

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Guest Bloggers

One of the great benefits of our work on reforming New York has been collaborating with some exceptional people who are interested in creating better, more effective state government. As you'll see from the post below, one of these people, Rachel Leon of Common Cause, has provided us with a guest posting. We expect to have many more such posts from reformers around the state in the coming months.

Categories: General

Friday, June 16, 2006

Independent = Ethical

Ripped from today's headlines is another story showing the need for an Independent Budget Office in New York State. Front page of the metro section of the New York Times reports that Governor Pataki kept a landlord lobbyist as a chief of mortgage agency despite the obvious potential conflict of interest issues it raises. And worse, the Independent Ethics office okayed it.

If this burns you up, and you want an independent cop on the beat to oversee state lawmakers, join the thousands of New Yorkers who sent e-mails yesterday to state lawmakers urging action on ethics before the end of session by joining in our call for ethics reform (

Rachel Leon
Common Cause/NY
Guest Blogger

Categories: General, Governmental Ethics

End-of-Session Ethics Push in Albany

The Daily Star Online reports that Assembly Democrats have introduced an ethics package with one week left in the Legislature’s official session for the year.

The proposal would ban most gifts from lobbyists, place stricter limits on the use of campaign accounts and restrict the ability of top legislative employees to leave their positions for jobs as highly paid lobbyists. It would also ban public officials from paid speaking engagements. But...

some government watchdogs question whether the proposal is a sincere attempt to change government in Albany or an election-year ruse to appease voters angered by corruption and dysfunction at the capital…

Horner [of NYPIRG] called the package "a step forward" but said it left out several proposals good government groups have been looking for, such as the creation of an independent ethics panel. Also, when it comes to lawmakers’ use of campaign cash for personal expenses, the proposal leaves it up to the notoriously weak state Board of Elections to develop its rules against it.

We agree. Although this bill is a step in the right direction, it falls short of comprehensive reform. The Brennan Center, along with NYPRIG, Common Cause and the League released a model ethics bill in February of this year. Our bill goes further. It would create an independent ethics commission, ban personal use of campaign contributions except for certain di minimums items so that candidates can’t pay cell phone bills and buy pool covers with supporters’ donations, and ban “pay-to-play” practices, limiting the contributions that lobbyists and government contractors can give to candidates.

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Are the “Three Men in a Room” Going Down?

The North County Gazette reported yesterday that

a panel of judges in the Appellate Division, First Department, heard complaints from the lawsuit against the "Three Men In A Room" Friday over dysfunctional legislative practices in the New York State Legislature…

The panel listened to plaintiffs' appeals of counts that were previously dismissed, as well as the State's appeals of lower court decisions allowing some counts to move forward.

In February 2005, New York State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assemblyman Tom Kirwan (R-Newburgh) filed suit against Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Senate, and the Assembly, challenging the constitutionality of various rules and practices that contribute to the Legislature's dysfunction.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Lesson 1: How To Stymie A Popular New York Bill

One of the State Legislature's great shortcomings is that a single leader can prevent an extremely popular bill from ever getting to the floor for a vote.

Today's NY Times and yesterday's NY Post report that New York City officials are accusing Speaker Silver of caving into pressure from trial lawyers, and bottling up a bill supported by both Spitzer and Pataki. The bill would have changed the way public employees can recover money from municipalities in personal injury lawsuits. Specifically, under the current law

a municipal worker who is disabled in a work-related accident can receive an accident disability pension, which is paid for by the city. But the worker can also sue for lost future earnings and significantly increase the amount of money he or she receives.

The new bill would have ended the right to sue for these second set of payments. New York City officials thought they had enough votes to get the bill out of the Judiciary Committee, but at the last minute, Silver added three members to the committee, who voted against the bill and defeated it, 11 to 10.

Putting aside the merits of the bill itself, we have a question:

While everyone is decrying Speaker Silver's "packing" of the Judiciary Committee (and really, all he did was fill three vacancies), shouldn't they really be asking why it's so darn difficult to get a bill to the floor, even when (as the bills supporters seem to claim) it has the support of such a large number of Assemblymembers?

So maybe Silver added three members to the Committee to defeat the bill. So what? If a majority of Assemblymembers support it, shouldn't they have a way of circumventing the Committee and Silver and getting the bill to the floor for debate and a vote anyway?

The Brennan Center's report on the Legislature showed that New York's Legislature renders it more difficult than any other legislative chamber in the country for the average member to get a bill out of committee and onto the floor for consideration. It seems to us that, in the story of the life and death of this particular bill, that's the real crime.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Solutions, but no Answers

It may sound like something only a policy wonk would worry about, but one of the major problems in New York State government is that the legislature almost never uses conference committees to reconcile differences between bills passed by each of the two houses. The result is that both houses produce solutions to enduring problems, but they never get around to reconciling them and creating a law that actually gets enacted and offers New Yorkers relief.

This past Monday, the Democrat & Chronicle noted that nearly everyone -- Democrats, Republicans, Assemblymembers, Senators and the Governor -- agree that New York's sky high electricity prices are a major hindrance to a healthy New York State economy. Unfortunately, the Senate and Assembly don't have the same solutions to this problem. The upshot? Gridlock. Nothing gets done, and the problem remains.

In other states, and the United States Congress, if both chambers pass bills addressing the same subject, a conference committee will meet to reconcile those differences and attempt to come up with a compromise solution. New Yorkers should ask, why does this happen so rarely in our state?

One of the things we're going to push for on this blog, right through to January '07 (when the Senate and Assembly are required to adopt new legislative rules) is to make sure the Senate and Assembly adopt rules that will make conference committee meetings much more common.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Gift Ban

Sewell Chan of the New York Times reports that Mayor Bloomberg has signed three bills that tighten regulation of city lobbyists, including a ban on gifts. This is something that we at the Brennan Center would like to see happen on the State level.

What's the problem with lobbyists giving gifts to elected officials and other state employees? At the very least, it gives the appearance of corrupting the legislative process and providing unequal public access to government decision-makers. For instance:

Reports surfaced in spring of 2004 that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had allegedly accepted a discounted suite in a Las Vegas hotel run by a company that wanted to run a casino in New York State.

In 1995, New York’s beer and soda industry was able to score a $42 million tax cut in that year’s state budget, during a year when the state faced a $5 billion shortfall. At the height of the effort to pass tax cut legislation, the industry met privately with top policy makers over dinner. Pepsi lobbyists treated Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, state Republican Party Chairman William Powers, and other party leaders to a $1,397 dinner at the New York City restaurant Lutece. Democratic legislators were also taken to The Four Seasons restaurant, where the tab was $2,354.

In 1996, Philip Morris spent tens of thousands of dollars on gifts to Albany lawmakers, including meals at fine restaurants, seats at the men’s final of the US Open, hotel reservations and tickets to the Indianapolis 500, as well as Yankees and Mets baseball games. The chief lobbyist for Philip Morris in Albany treated 60 lawmakers and their aides to more than $12,000 in meals in the first half of 1996 alone.

None of this looks good to ordinary New Yorkers, who wonder whether their voice really counts in Albany. Wouldn't New York State be better off if it followed the City's lead and banned all gifts from lobbyists?

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

It gets worse

Following up on today's earlier post about "secret" spending in Albany, James Odata has done a phenomenal job of detailing how opaque the State Legislature can be. In Sunday's Times Union, he reports:

Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver refuse to let anyone know how lawmakers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money.

Since April, the two powerful politicians have rejected all requests to disclose the names of legislators who arranged some $340 million in appropriations of the public's money in recent years for thousands of pet projects, grants and gifts.

Now that's chutzpah!

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Operating behind closed doors

Here's yet another example of why we need more open government in Albany.

James Odata reports in today's Albany Times Union that Albany County DA David Soares has begun an inquiry into State lawmakers' use of discretionary funds, also known as "member items."

According to the article, the investigation may have been triggered by earlier reporting in the Times Union about the "questionable use by some state senators and members of the assembly of the $200 million a year secretly carved up in the Capitol by members of the Legislature and the governor for pet projects."(emphasis added).

Secretly? Um, whose money is this anyway?

Previous reporting gives us a clue as to the type of "secret carving up" Soares may be looking at:

The investigation follows reports in the newspaper about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in member item funds steered by Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. and Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., both of the Bronx, to nonprofit organizations under the elder Diaz's control.

Sounds troubling, to say the least.

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Monday, June 12, 2006

When New Jersey Provides Lessons in Ethics . . .

you know you're in trouble. Interesting factoid in today's NY Post:

Many contractors have stopped donating or slashed the amounts they give to political fund-raisers ever since New Jersey enacted a law to stop so-called pay-to-play transactions in September 2004. For example, a third of the money the Democratic State Committee raised in 2004 came from contractors but it totaled just 6 percent last year.

We wonder what these numbers would look like in New York, where the State government has assiduously resisted ending its "pay to play" culture. In New York (in contrast to New Jersey and Connecticut, where real reform seems to have a chance), lobbyists, businesses and unions with public contracts continue to provide politicians with huge sums of campaign cash. In a typical session in New York, a recent report has noted,

lawmakers are scheduled to be in Albany for 60 days, including 40 nights. In that time, as many as 200 Albany-based fundraisers can occur.

The result is a "widespread public belief [in New York that lobbyists] are 'paying' those officials to 'play' with the government."

New Jersey, point the way . . .

Categories: General, Government Ethics, Campaign Finance

Word Association: "New York State Government"

The New York Post's Frederic U. Dicker reports that

GUBERNATORIAL front-runner Eliot Spitzer secretly blocked Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver from introducing him at the Democratic Convention because he didn't want to be associated with the state government's dysfunctional status quo.

Looks like the Governor's race is likely to be dominated by discussion of who will be the real reformer and "shake up the status quo in Albany." It will be up to the press and public to push candidates to offer specifics. We'll try to do our part here at ReformNY.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Failing Upstate

Sam Roberts reports in Sunday's New York Times that upstate voters have lost hope that either political party is really interested in bettering the plight of upstate New Yorkers:

Decades of campaign promises from both parties to make upstate more competitive, and their mixed records on redeeming those promises, have left some New Yorkers skeptical that either party has the will or the ability to fix the foundering economy.

One of the great tragedies of the last couple of decades in New York has been the failure of the government to find and implement creative solutions to economic problems outside the New York City metro area. It's no wonder so many New York residents have stopped paying attention to what local candidates are saying.

What can politicians do to gain credibility with New Yorkers from across the state? Here are some ideas: commit to adopting legislative rules changes that will take power away from leadership and return it to individual legislators, and make the legislature more transparent, so that voters can hold their representatives accountable when they fail to follow through on their promises. And how about enacting comprehensive campaign finance reform, so that politicians worry more the voters than big-money lobbyists?

This blog will be devoted to exploring these issues and how implementing the right kind of reforms can help create a more responsive, effective state government for all New Yorkers, upstate and down.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance, Government Ethics, Legislative Rules, Voting

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

No more need for speculation . . . .

Patrick Healy says it's over. Weld spokesman confirms he will drop out today.

Categories: General

(When) Will Weld Withdraw?

Speculation runs rampant across the State.

Categories: General

What's a few billion dollars, anyway?

The federal government has harsh words for Albany, and its remarkable failure to root out what the New York Times has identified as millions, and perhaps billions, of dollars of fraud against the State's Medicaid program. We're sure that there are plenty of county officials who have some harsh words for Albany as well; as FixAlbany has noted, many counties around the state are drowning in Medicaid expenses passed on by Albany to local governments.

There's a word for the failure to take real steps when confronted with a multi-billion dollar fraud, and it starts with the letter "D".

Categories: General

Monday, June 05, 2006

Transparency, transparency, transparency

One of the points made in the Brennan Center's evaluation of New York's legislative process is that the workings of the state government are painfully opaque. In today's New York Times , Danny Hakim provides an example of how that lack of transparency can translate into seemingly questionable uses of taxpayer money.

This particular story is about the New York State Theater Institute, or Nysti, one New York's many quasi-governmental agencies that receive and spend state money with surprisingly little oversight. The Times article notes that the Theater Institute (which no doubt, many New Yorkers had not heard of before today) has received $2.1 million this year, compared to $7.3 million in theater and arts related education to SEVERAL HUNDREDS of cultural organizations last year. Just where has that money gone? This is where the lack of transparency becomes a little troubling:

Discerning how the institute spends taxpayers' money is not simple.

Documents provided by the theater show that its longtime executive director, Patricia Snyder, has given work and perks to many of her family members. While the theater world has a long tradition of family troupes, giving work to relatives raises eyebrows at government entities.

Last year, four of Ms. Snyder's relatives were flown to Sweden to take part in a production written by Ms. Snyder's daughter-in-law. The institute also spends $2,275 a month on a Midtown Manhattan apartment.

To be sure, in a budget as huge as the State of New York's, $2.3 million may seem like a drop in the bucket. And certainly, many New Yorkers are happy to have the State support arts education.

But, family trips to Sweden? And, given the fact that the Institute is spending State money, why isn't it "simple" to figure out how that money is being used? We should be under no illusions that the alleged wasteful spending going on at Nysti represents some isolated event. Without sunlight, fraud and waste will fester.

This appears to be a small, but excellent, example of the need for greater transparency in New York government. NOW.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules