Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Last Night's Panel At NYU Law School

We had a great panel on how to reform the State Legislature at NYU Law School last night. With approximately 150 people in attendance, E.J. McMahon (Empire Center), Susan Lerner (Common Cause NY), Senator Squadron and Assemblyman Jeffries each identified the one reform they would most like to see enacted to make significant change in the legislature (there was no dispute that significant change was needed).

E.J. McMahon had what was perhaps the most provocative suggestion: turning the legislature into a "Citizen's Legislature," where the number of legislators was increased, the legislative calendar shortened to 30 days, and the position of Senator and Assemblyman turned into a part-time job. The three other panelists objected to this idea, citing the complexity of issues facing the legislature and arguing it would make the legislature even less effective than it is now.

Susan Lerner argued for reform to the committee process: less committees, more hearings, mark-ups and debate on bills. These are things we see in every other state legislature, and all four panelists agreed this reform was needed in New York.

Senator Squadron argued that we needed real campaign finance reform in New York, with lower contribution limits and public financing. Susan Lerner agreed, stating that campaign finance reform was the reform necessary for all other reforms, and noting that too often legislators feel they must respond to lobbyists first. E.J. McMahon was the only contrarian on campaign finance reform, arguing that if anything, we should further deregulate New York's system (it's hard for me to imagine how it could be much more deregulated).

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries argued for an end to the current process for Special Elections, whereby party bosses essentially choose the replacement for legislators who must leave office in the middle of their terms for reasons like criminal indictment. He noted that approximately 1/3 of the legislature has been chosen through this special election process. He and Senator Squadron have introduced a bill to tackle this issue.

We had an extremely engaged audience, with questions about redistricting reform, constitutional convention, elimination of member items and whether it made sense to turn the legislature into a unicameral body.

While there was general agreement that things were pretty bad in Albany right now, the panelists also seemed to agree that the public disgust with Albany presented an opportunity for some significant changes.

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