Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Brennan Center's Statement on the Senate Takeover

Yesterday, members of the New York State Senate held a vote to install Republican Dean Skelos and Democrat Pedro Espada as Majority Leader and President of the Senate, respectively, and passed a resolution to enact several rules changes.

According to leaders of the coup and financier Tom Golisano who backed the vote, the move was orchestrated in the name of “bringing real reform to the Senate.” In a press release yesterday afternoon, Golisano cited the Brennan Center’s report as evidence that reform was necessary, stating that Senate Democrats had failed to enact the reforms they promised before taking the Majority in January.

Golisano’s main complaint seems to be the transparency of the budget process, which was reported to be more opaque than ever this year. “While we can’t speculate about whether or not this would have happened anyway, it is fair to say that if the Democrats had passed broader rules reform this year, Golisano would have had another venue to air his grievances and the arguments about reform that he and others made yesterday would have had less legitimacy,” says Brennan Center Senior Fellow and Hofstra University Law Professor Eric Lane, who served as Chief Counsel to the Senate Minority from 1981 to 1986.

While a statement released by Senator Skelos indicates that the rules changes passed yesterday include improvements like allowing rank-and-file members to force a bill onto the floor, it is impossible to analyze the changes without seeing the exact text of the resolution passed by the Senate. “The devil is really in the details,” says Brennan Center Senior Counsel Lawrence Norden, author of the Center’s 2006 and 2008 reports about the legislative process in Albany, “In the past, Senate Republicans have passed resolutions worded to protect the status quo under the guise of reform. But if these reforms are what they appear to be, they represent important – but incomplete – change.”

However the reforms are worded, they fail to address the most critical component of Albany’s broken process: the committee system. The reforms fail to provide for an amendment process in committee or to require committees to produce substantive reports on the bills that they report to the full chamber. “The Senate won’t bring its chamber into line with nearly every other legislature in the country until it addresses the broken committee system,” says Norden. “It’s great for members to have the ability to force bills to the floor for a vote, but it would be much better for New York if those bills had been thoroughly reviewed and vetted by a competent committee. I don’t see anything in the summary of these new rules that makes this possibility more likely.”

To schedule an interview with Larry Norden, Eric Lane, or Laura Seago, call Brennan Center Press Manager Jeanine Plant-Chirlin at 212-998-6289

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