Sunday, July 30, 2006

Taking Reform to the Candidates

The New York Times has printed an editorial today that we can strongly back. The Times says "when New York State politician [sic] start asking for your vote, it’s time to ask for something in return."

Most importantly, the Times asks, will the candidate asking for your vote get behind:

*an independent redistricting commission?

*the campaign finance proposal supported by, among other groups, the Brennan Center?

*real ethics reform?

The Times also demands to know where state legislators stand on

*reform on rules governing legislative committees, including giving committee leaders control over hiring and firing of staff members and requiring a public hearing if a quarter of the committee members want one?

*the State Senate's recently passed anti-reform measure that makes it impossible for the Senate to make any legislative rules changes without the consent of the Senate Majority Leader and Senate Rule Committee?

*empty seat voting, whereby legislators don't have to be present to vote?

We couldn't have asked these questions better ourselves. The editorial notes that the Times will be asking more questions next week. We've got one:

*Will candidates support ending the stranglehold that Legislative leaders have over bills getting to the floor?

As it presently stands, a bill can be voted out of committee unanimously, and receive support from a majority of legislators and New Yorkers, but still not get to the floor for debate or a vote -- merely because leadership says so.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Who Needs A Campaign?

Ben Smith provides us with yet another example of a State Legislator who raises and spends campaign money without actually having a campaign. Lots of spending on restaurants and cell phones. As Mr. Smith notes "[n]othing legally questionable or even particularly unusual about it."

Have we mentioned our recent reports on New York's exceptionally lax campaign finance and ethics laws?

More on NY's Failed Campaign Laws

In a scathing editorial, the Poughkeepsie Journal takes New York State to task for its failed campaign finance laws. Citing the recently release Brennan Center campaign finance report, the paper notes:

New York's campaign finance laws are a mess and ineffective. And state leaders would rather blame each other for the stalemate over reforms rather than work together on remedies.

New York's campaign finance laws are a fiasco: a fig leaf that does little to hide the fact that the State has one of the worst campaign regulatory systems in the nation.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Can Reform Become Part of the Political Season?

An article in the Journal News notes that the conversation about "reform" has cooled off significantly in Albany in the last year. It's been mentioned in the Governor's race, but only in vague terms and has taken a back seat to tax issues.

As Election Day nears, will reforming Albany once again take center stage? It may be too early to tell:

Legislative races are just hitting high season, so it remains to be seen if reform is a top issue.

We'll have to do everything we can to make sure candidates don't give this issue short shrift.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Flimsy Fa├žade of Campaign Finance Laws in New York

Followers of New York politics may not be surprised to hear that the state's campaign finance laws are porous and under-enforced. They may be surprised, however, to learn just how serious both of these problems are. A new report from the Brennan Center documents the sorry state of campaign finance regulation in New York, and suggests how to fix it.

From the press release:
Today the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released Paper Thin: The Flimsy Facade of Campaign Finance Laws in New York. The report documents flaws in New York's campaign finance law and enforcement regime that render New York's already high contribution limits functionally meaningless.

"Some states admit they don't have reasonable campaign finance reform laws. New York pretends to address the influence of money in politics, but in reality its regulatory system is among the worst in the nation," stated Michael Waldman, Executive Director of the Brennan Center.

The report finds that New York's contribution limits, which climb as high as $84,400, are the highest in the country for many categories of contributions. In fact, in some categories, New York's contribution limits would still rank among the nation's highest even if they were cut in half. The consequences of such laws can be seen in practice. According to Common Cause/NY, fifty-five percent of New York State campaign funds received by candidates during the 2002, 2004 and 2006 election cycles have come via checks written for more than $2,100.

"To make matters worse, loopholes in New York's campaign finance laws render even our extraordinarily high contribution limits meaningless," stated Suzanne Novak, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center and the lead author of the report.

. . . .
As they like to say in the blogosphere, read the whole thing!

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Will the Real Albany Reformer Please Stand Up?

The big New York government news from yesterday was the debate between Democratic gubernatorial candidates Eliot Spitzer and Thomas R. Suozzi. This was the sole debate to which the frontrunner Spitzer has agreed.

The early consensus seems to be that Spitzer emerged relatively unscathed. But Suozzi scored some points by sounding one of this blog's favorite themes: the dysfunction of New York State politics.

"New York State government is dysfunctional -- both parties are rotten to the core," Suozzi inveighed in his opening remarks. "If New York State was a Wall Street firm, Mr. Spitzer would have indicted it already," Suozzi continued. "But the reality is that in the past 7-1/2 years, he has not taken on the state government."

Suozzi later charged Spitzer with "never really focus[ing] on government reform," even though "[i]t's government that's hurting us." Spitzer is "embraced by all the politicians, all the insiders, and all the lobbyists who have given us this broken system." "If I'm elected governor of New York State, it will send the clearest message to every single politician in this state that business as usual is over," Suozzi added.

Spitzer also alluded to the need for reform, championing his record as a crusading attorney general and promising to "fundamentally change government so that it reflects a moral vision that we all share."

Talk of reforming New York State government was kept vague, as is perhaps to be expected from a televised debate. And in the scheme of Spitzer's much-touted run for Governor -- he has raised more than five times as much money as Suozzi and held a 69-point lead in the latest poll -- the event may be of little lasting significance. Let's hope, however, that Albany's dysfunctional culture remains in the spotlight during this campaign and the general election. The Governor is, after all, one of the "three men in a room" who exert oligarchic control over New York State politics. It will take a committed effort from the new Governor, whoever it is, to fundamentally change the system.

Round-up of debate coverage:
New York Times: "Sole Debate for Spitzer and Suozzi Is Fiery" and "In an Exchange of Zingers, the Truth Can Take a Hit"
Newsday: "Suozzi v. Spitzer: A Debate Volley"
New York Post: "Spitzer and Suozzi Come Out Swinging"
New York Daily News: "Suozzi Fails To Land KO"
Albany Times Union: "Spitzer, Suozzi Spar in Spirited Debate"
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle: "Spitzer, Suozzi Talk Reform"
Buffalo News: "Spitzer, Suozzi Claim To Be True Reformers at Debate"
Utica Observer-Dispatch: "Spitzer, Suozzi Agree: Albany Needs Reformer"

Categories: General

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

There oughta be a law against that

The Buffalo News opines that New York's rules about what "candidates" can do with unused campaign funds is, well, pathetic. And wrong.

As currently written the state law - known as one of the most lax in the nation - says ... [a] candidate's unused money can go to other candidates. On the surface, that seems to make sense. At least the candidate doesn't get to pocket it. But here's the rub: The money is often ... leveraged to buy favors. Past office holders and candidates retain power and influence... [T]his is not only legal, it's commonplace. More importantly, it's just another example of putting what's good for politicians ahead of what's good for citizens.

The Buffalo News points to Anthony M Massielo, registered lobbyist and prominent Democrat with "campaign" funds left over after he decided not to mount another campaign for mayor. He recently contributed $45,000 in unused "campaign" funds to Elliot Spitzer's campaign for Governor. As the News points out, "[t]hat's a chunk of change injected into the election effort of a potential administration whose many divisions could find work for Masiello's fledgling firm."

But as the News also points out, Masiello's case is nothing special. This is par for the course in New York State politics. It merely "highlights the incestuous relationships among politicians, office holders and lobbyists."

The editorial leaves us with this disturbing thought:

Some people wonder why people get into politics? In increasing numbers, it's to leave with a six-figure slush fund to dole out from a lobbying office. It's an exclusive power club where the members write bad rules.

Indeed. Why should any legislator be motivated to change New York's lax ethics rules when he or she may benefit from them down the road?

Categories: General, Campaign Finance, Ethics

Monday, July 24, 2006

Big Budget

Also in the Opinion section of yesterday's Times, some startling numbers relating to the budget. According to the Times, spending increased by $10.1 billion. The Times notes that at its current rate "the state’s debt could increase to nearly $65 billion, or more than a third of the projected state budget, in five years."

Where is all that money going? Well, no one place of course. But we couldn't help but notice this item:

...legislators and Mr. Pataki made a big splash last month when they announced that a computer chip factory would be built in Saratoga County. The project will cost the state between $1.2 billion to over $3 billion in various tax breaks, loan guarantees and other subsidies.

According to one estimate, each new job will cost a whopping $1 million. But here’s the clincher: The chip fab, as the factory is called, will be located in the district of the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, one of the three most powerful men in New York State government.


In case you were concerned, the power of the "big three" (Pataki, Silver and Bruno) appears as strong as ever.

Categories: General

Reforming Programs for the Mentally Ill

In an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times, Jay Neugeboren paints a grim picture of New York's mental health system in general, and the for-profit residences that the state contracts with in particular.

He argues that non-profit homes may provide the answer: offering better and cheaper care. The problem?

The state is well aware that successful nonprofit alternatives exist. What does not exist, however, is the political will in Albany to ensure that these alternative programs are financed and expanded, affording mentally ill New Yorkers decent places to live and competent, caring staff to help them lead happier, more productive lives.

Sounds like an all too familliar lament to us.

Categories: General

Friday, July 21, 2006

Taking Sides

The Times reports on an interesting decision out of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in Albany yesterday. The court decided that political parties are allowed to spend money to directly influence primaries in other parties' primaries.

Election lawyers said that the ruling opens the door to major and minor parties much more actively taking sides in one another’s primaries, and even to the Republican and Democratic parties trying to influence each other’s contests.

Categories: General

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Pataki's Fishy Feast

The Daily News reports that Governor Pataki

treated a dozen New Hampshire GOP activists to a taxpayer-funded salmon dinner at the Executive Mansion last month - even as lawmakers scrambled late into the night to wrap up the legislative session.

Pataki claims the dinner was completely unrelated to any White House aspirations.

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Pataki Veto

The Democrat and Chronicle reports that Pataki is going to veto a bill that lawmakers had dubbed "budget reform."

The Democrat and Chronicle gives our friend Blair Horner at NYPIRG the last word in analysis on this issue:

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said Monday he figured Pataki would veto the measure. The Legislature's interest institutionally was to create more scrutiny of budgeting on the executive side, which is reflected in the bill. The same cannot be said for opening up the process as it applies to the Senate and Assembly, he said.

Categories: General

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Where's all that money coming from?

For those interested, the Empire Zone provides the latest campaign finance filings for all of the major governor and AG candidates.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Reform Fizzle?

The Democrat and Chronicle has a depressing article on the state of reform in New York. The article notes that "Reform was an oft-repeated but little-legislated concept at the Capitol this year." Specifially

Good-government groups pushing for a ban on gifts and speaking fees for lawmakers, public financing of campaigns and an independent budget office for the governor and Legislature have found little to hold onto.

The reason? Assemblyman McEneny argues that "too often, the Assembly and Senate pass their own bills that the other house ignores." The obvious solution for that problem is more conference committees -- where members from each House are forced to hammer out compromises between similar bills -- as urged by the Brennan Center.

But more generally, it seems, politicians aren't feeling the pressure they did two years ago to enact real reforms. As the article notes, in 2004

A report ... had dubbed New York's government as the most dysfunctional in the country. A handful of lawmakers lost seats to opponents who ran as outsiders, and a few high-profile incumbents barely eked out wins.

Clearly, if we want more reforms, we need to get the issue back into center of the political debate in the 2006 elections.

Categories: General

Eliot Hollywood

The Times takes a look at Eliot Spitzer's campaign filings and notes that his list of contributors could lead one to believe he was running for governor of California rather than New York. Big-buck contributors include Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Don Henley, Barbara Streisand and Ben Affleck.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Will New York State Cut Taxes?

This editorial in the Buffalo News asks why New York can't manage to reduce its citizen's tax burden, like so many other states across the country. Giving a plug to our friends at upstateblog, the Buffalo News notes that unhappiness with the State Legislature has spread throughout the state:

For those who might want to shrug off the opinions of this page, read upstateblog.com any day. This compendium of newspaper stories, columns and editorials shows a surprising unanimity from here to Plattsburgh to Binghamton to Melville: Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats lead this state toward extinction. It's staggering how out of touch they are with what's working elsewhere.

(Unfortunately, the Buffalo News gave the wrong url for upstate blog. It's upstateblog.net)

We'd add that some folks here in New York City are rather unhappy with the legislature as well. Making the legislature more accountable to the will of the people is something we should all agree on.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Monday, July 17, 2006

That's a lot of dough!

Capitol Confidential reports that:

AG Eliot Spitzer raised $10.7 million over the past six months and has $16.3 million on hand, according to the summary sheet of his state Board of Elections filing.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Reform from Rochester

We missed this editorial in Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle praising the new initiatives being pushed by Rochester's Citizens for Better Government in New York.

As the editorial notes, CBGNY has grown from 6 to 200 activists in a very short time, underscoring the frustration felt in the Rochester region over the state's continuing failures.

We congratulate CBGNY on its tremendous efforts and accomplishments in just two years, and we echo the closing sentiment of the Democrat and Chronicle editorial:

Finally, it can't be said enough that legislative leaders have too much power. Yes, the Albany powermongers loosened their reins slightly last year, but not nearly enough.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Year in Review

The Times provides an overview of the 229th Legislative Session's accomplishments and failures.

Categories: General

Saturday, July 15, 2006

New York is Awash in Cash

... or at least its politicians are. Common Cause provides us with a rundown of the latest campaign finance reports.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Friday, July 14, 2006

Governor Richardson, the BC, and Voting System Security in New York


This week, the National Association of Secretaries of States and the Election Assistance Commission met in Sante Fe, New Mexico. The Brennan Center was in attendance. While we were there, Governor Bill Richardson joined us and Common Cause in calling for better security of voting systems. Here's a picture of the event (that's Larry Norden of the Brennan Center on the left, Barbara Burt of Common Cause on the right, and the Governor in the center).

Where does New York stand in relation to the Brennan Center's recent report on voting system security? We do pretty well, actually. New York has mandated an audit of the voter verified paper records after every election, and banned wireless components on all machines (one of only two states to do so). There is room for improvement to be sure, and the Brennan Center will soon be releasing reports on the usability, accessibility and cost of systems (all areas where New York does not fare so well) -- still, on this score, New York seems ahead of the curve.

Categories: General, Voting

Dysfunction and Explosions

With tongue mostly in cheek, the New York Times yesterday asks whether the State Legislature can be blamed for the explosion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan this week, which brought down a historic townhouse?

The doctor who blew up this townhouse did so after a divorce process that lasted several years -- apparently in an attempt to prevent his wife from getting any portion of it. The Times correctly points out that New York has some of the worst divorce laws in the country. Despite the fact that there is a growing consensus in New York that these laws need to be simplified and changed,the Legislature just hasn't gotten around to doing anything.

Readers of this blog can't be surprised by that.


Catgeories: General, Legislative Rules

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Suozzi questions Spitzer’s ethics

The Politicker writes that rival Democratic candidate for governor Tom Suozzi formally filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission requesting a ruling on whether Spitzer’s role in a family financial trust created a conflict of interest with his job policing the state’s chartitable organization as Attorney General. If so, Suozzi wants Spitzer to resign as a trustee of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust.

WBNC reports that “The Ethics Commission is reviewing the matter, said commission spokesman Walter Ayres. The commission is prevented by law from publicly disclosing whether it is launching an investigation until it finds there is reasonable cause for charges.”

“In the complaint, Suozzi raised questions about the Spitzer trust investing more than $20 million in various hedge funds, some of whose executives then gave major contributions to Spitzer's Democratic campaign for governor.”

Categories: General, Governmental Ethics

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Oink Oink!

Gotham Gazette has an excellent story on the secretive way that NYS deals with member items in the budget. It’s pork barrel spending and slush funds galore!

“Each year, Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon hand out $170 million in member items. The governor also gets a $30 million pot of money to pass out as he sees fit. But unlike the City Council, the State Legislature does not provide a list of how the money is spent. Even the State Comptroller, who has the power to audit state contracts and other finances, does not have the authority see the list.

In an effort to learn how this $200 million in taxpayer money is spent each year, the Times Union of Albany has spent months trying to get the records using the New York's Freedom of Information Law. When both Bruno and Silver refused, the newspaper filed a lawsuit to force them to produce the information. The Albany District Attorney David Soares even began an investigation into the matter.
After many months, the Times Union did get a hold of some member item records from the past - including some that raised suspicions.

In 2004 and 2005, records showed that Assemblymember Vito Lopez funneled $700,000 in member items to the same senior center that sponsors his annual picnic, with no explanation of how the money would be spent.

During the same time period, one of the largest recipients of member item funds was the North Bronx Westchester Neighborhood Restoration Association, which received $1.4 million even though its founder, State Senator Guy Velella was found guilty of accepting bribes and sentenced to a year in prison….”


There’s some good news:

“the State Senate has posted some information about member items on its Web site, but many of the grants are for unspecific organizations at undisclosed locations. E.J. McMahon, a budget watchdog for the Manhattan Institute, called the list of member items "almost worse than nothing."”

See our previous related postings: We’re Shocked, Shocked! AND Operating Behind Closed Doors

Categories: General, Legislative Rules, Campaign Finance

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Member Item Abuse, Writ Small

Apparently Albany is not the only city in New York with a member-items problem. A blurb in today's New York Times indicates that Queens councilman Hiram Monserrate is challenging the City Council's tradition of inserting member items -- the funds allocated to individual legislators for their own projects -- "in the final days of budget talks" and then listing them "on a document with minimal explanation of the purpose of each item and no totals or year-by-year comparisons."

As we have written about before, the New York State Legislature has also been highly secretive about the details of its member items, which are largely controlled by the house leadership and are, some charge, routinely manipulated for personal and partisan political gain. Better disclosure on member items is a necessary first step to rectifying their abuse, in Albany as well as New York City. There is no reason why this information ought to be kept from the public, and growing reason to think that outside scrutiny will yield some unpleasant findings.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules, Government Ethics

An Encouraging Development

The drive to reform Albany kicked up a notch yesterday, when the grass-roots group Citizens for Better Government in New York announced its "E-March on Albany" campaign. The campaign will focus on the "3 R's of Reform": redistricting; rules changes in the legislature; and referenda and initiatives. The press release describes the problems CBGNY seeks to address:

• Objective independent third party redistricting. Currently, each house of the legislature appoints a committee of its own members to establish new district boundaries every 10 years after each federal census.

• Additional legislative rules changes. Open up the legislative process. Currently, rules are in place that limits the open debate of legislation and the flow of bills through the process of consideration, debate, amendment, and passage.

• Initiative and Referendum. Currently, New York does not have these processes. These features allow citizens to place proposed laws directly on the ballot without the approval of the legislature. Referendum allows citizens to place on the ballot laws that have been enacted by the legislature for reconsideration by the voters.
On the impetus for the group's efforts, the press release goes on to note:

"Changes in the way the state is governed are long overdue," said David Lum of Pittsford, another of the group's leaders. "Our state legislature is bogged down with the battle of incumbency while the important issues are caught in legislative delays controlled by a few leaders," said Lum.

"Last year, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law issued a report entitled The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform. "It's been almost 1 1/2 years since this report was published and virtually no changes have been made to make the legislative process more transparent, deliberative, accountable, and effective," said John Boroski of Fairport, another of the group's leaders.
An extremely supportive editorial from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle applauds CBGNY's new campaign. The editorial adds that while rules changes made by the Legislature last year "gave the appearance of reform," they failed to address many of the most important constraints to fair, transparent, and informed representation.

Last fall, CBGNY garnered over 1,200 write-in votes for the "Brennan Center Report" as a candidate for state office. While we worry that the report's status as an inanimate object would make it an ineffective representative, we took this as a strong sign of support for the recommendations proposed in the Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform. Here's hoping that the E-March on Albany and the commitment of local newspapers like the Democrat & Chronicle will help motivate legislators to get serious about reforming their rules -- and the state's democratic processes more generally -- next session.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules, Redistricting, Voting

Monday, July 10, 2006

Defending Diversity in Our Courts

The American Constitutional Society Blog has this posting on Lopez Torres v. NY State Board of Elections et al. challenging that New York State’s party-boss dominated convention system for Supreme Court justices is an unconstitutional deprivation of the rights of voters, candidates, and political party members.

The Brennan Center filed suit in federal court in March of 2004 on behalf of several plaintiffs, including Civil Court (now Surrogate Court) Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, Common Cause/NY, and several voters across the state. The named defendant is the New York State Board of Elections. The Association of Supreme Court Justices, the New York County Democratic Committee, and the New York State Republican Party all intervened as defendants to defend the status quo judicial convention system. On appeal, a wide array of groups including seven minority bar associations and legal organizations joined our efforts as amici.

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

What is "Rejection"?

John A. Camitsiditas, chairman and chief executive of a chain of New York City supermarkets, writes in an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times:

NEW YORKERS dodged a bullet last month when the State Senate rejected a bill, which the Assembly had earlier passed, that would have increased the number of bottles and cans that can be returned for a 5-cent deposit at your local grocery store.

He is referring to the so-called "Bigger Bottle Bill," which was meant to increase the amount of glass and aluminum recycled in New York State. The Bigger Bottle Bill passed by an overwhelming majority in the State Assembly and, according to Blair Horner of NYPIRG, had six Republican co-sponsors in the Senate. It appears to have the support of a majority of New Yorkers.

Given all these facts, there must have been some brave New York Senate Republicans (and Democrats) who voted down the bottle bill on the Senate floor, no? Well, no. The "rejection" that Camitsiditas refers to is the kind of rejection we're used to in the New York legislative process: somehow the bill dies without anyone having to take a vote. Republicans and Democrats alike can claim to support the bill. And all we know is Majority Leader Bruno kept it from ever coming to a vote.

Love the Bigger Bottle Bill or hate it, this is no way to run a legislature that the voters can hold accountable.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Taking a Stand on Gay Marriage

In his blog, The Daily Politics, Ben Smith notes that we just don't know the position of most state legislators on gay marriage:

A surprising number of them -- a majority, I think -- aren't on the record with any position at all.

But is this really so surprising? As we noted in our 2004 report, there is shockingly little transparency or accountability in the New York State Legislature. Even when a legislator takes a public position on a controversial issue, chances are good that she won't have back it up with a vote and alienate some of her constituents. Over the past several years, fewer than 10% of bills introduced per year actually came up for a vote on either chamber floor, the lowest rate in the nation.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Friday, July 07, 2006

Gay Marriage and the Legislature

In yesterday's ruling permitting New York to bar gay couples from marrying, the State's highest court noted that its holding did not preclude the Legislature from extending "marriage or all or some of its benefits to same-sex couples."

But getting the State Legislature to act on this issue is highly unlikely, noted Chief Judge Judith Kaye in her dissent -- regardless of how a majority of New Yorkers may feel about the issue. This sentiment was echoed in a Times Union editorial today:

Leaving such a delicate matter in the hands of an institution that specializes in inaction is, in all likelihood, to deny gay couples the civil benefits of marriage for some time to come.

No one, it appears, understands that better than Chief Judge Judith Kaye. Her stern dissent sees the Legislature for what it actually is, rather than the institution to which the majority on the court can so comfortably defer. Bills that would end the discrimination imposed by such restrictive marriage laws, Judge Kaye notes, can't even make it out of committee in the state Assembly. The Senate, no doubt, would be more resistant still.


Indeed. The ability of a single leader to prevent New Yorkers from getting a full legislative hearing and vote on matters important to them has real consequences for us all.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules Reform

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pimps, Madams, and the Legislative Process

An editorial by Bob Herbert in today's New York Times begins by invoking the Brennan Center's 2004 report on New York's "gridlocked" legislative process, and concludes: "The Legislature's status as the most dysfunctional in the nation seems secure." In between, Herbert describes how both the Senate and the Assembly recently passed bills to combat sex trafficking, and yet neither bill made it into law. The problem: "Neither house of the Legislature gave the other house's bill serious consideration." Herbert also suggests that each bill was substantively flawed -- the Assembly bill watered down by the Speaker, the Senate bill poorly drafted -- as a result of excessively powerful leaders and insufficiently powerful committees.

Herbert's editorial provides a trenchant example of how dysfunctional legislative processes lead to undesirable policy outcomes. In the case of sex trafficking, there was a lot of energy devoted to political grandstanding, but hardly any attention paid to crafting and enacting a workable law. The only winners here were "the pimps and the madams."

One takeaway from Herbert's tale is the salutary role that conference committees can play. Conference committees are, as the U.S. House of Representatives defines them, "temporary joint committees formed for the purpose of resolving differences between the houses on a measure or, occasionally, several measures." At the federal level, their use is routine. If the State Legislature won't follow suit, maybe it's time for New York to think hard about institutionalizing a mechanism for cross-house collaboration.

In our 2004 report touted by Herbert, we proposed a rules change to this end: "When bills addressing the same subject have been passed by both chambers, a conference committee shall be convened at the request of the prime sponsor from each chamber or the Speaker and Majority Leader. Such committee shall convene for a 'mark-up' session within two weeks of such a request to reconcile the differences in the two chambers' bills before final passage. These sessions shall be open to the public and shall be transcribed." The Senate and Assembly did not take us up on this proposal when they amended their rules in January 2005. They have another chance in six months time. Pimps and madams might lose out from such a reform, but the public would win big.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

An Anniversary of Note

When signing the landmark Freedom of Information Act into law 40 years ago, on the symbolic date of July 4, President Lyndon Johnson was not a happy camper. New documents from LBJ's library show the extent to which he opposed the law, and -- in a move foreshadowing a favorite tactic of the current President -- how he sought to undercut its import and reach with a restrictive signing statement. (See here and here.)

This revelation and the anniversary of FOIA give us cause to reflect on the state of information access in New York. As the Committee on Open Government's 2005 Report to the Governor and the State Legislature indicates, New York still has a ways to go in strengthening Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws. Sensible reforms can promote accountability, transparency, efficiency, and public participation, without endangering privacy or national security.

Yet New Yorkers can feel proud of at least one aspect of New York's information-access policies: the Committee on Open Government itself, a quasi-governmental body responsible for overseeing the implementation of relevant laws. In the Committee, New York has hit on an innovative, progressive model for enabling the public's right to know. Of course, not even the strongest open-government laws would truly let New Yorkers know how policies are made if "three men in a room" were to decide everything on their own, outside of any systematic scheme, in private fora. But that would never happen here ...

Categories: General

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

How to Avoid a Redistricting "Delay"

The Utica Observer-Dispatch has a forceful editorial today on the need for independent redistricting commissions in New York. In last week's LULAC decision, the Supreme Court refrained from invalidating Tom Delay's infamous mid-decade redrawing of congressional lines in Texas. The Brennan Center was disappointed that the Court missed an opportunity to, ahem, draw some lines on the permissibility of partisan redistricting. But just because they were not found to be unconstitutional doesn't mean that Delay-style schemes are good policy. Without an institutional structure to ensure nonpartisan redistricting, the Observer-Dispatch points out, states can expect partisanship to reign -- and electoral competition and accountability to suffer. As Justice Scalia once observed, "the first instinct of power is the retention of power." New York still has time before the 2010 Census to safeguard the state's political boundaries from a self-interested power-play.

Categories: General, Redistricting