Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Perfect Opportunity to Take New Senate Rules for a Spin

With yesterday’s votes in Washington and Maine concerning the rights of same-sex couples, New Yorkers may be wondering about the status of our own state’s proposal to extend marriage rights to gay couples.

On Tuesday, New York Magazine blog Daily Intel ran a story stating that Senate leadership appears unlikely to bring the marriage bill that has been languishing in the chamber for months to the floor for a vote.

This may be no surprise to those who were following this story in the spring. Then, as now, bill sponsor Tom Duane and senate leadership have a fairly good idea who is in favor of and who is against the bill, but voters do not. The Daily Intel post reports that there are 25 or 26 Democratic votes and three or four Republican votes in favor of the bill, but nobody’s naming names. That means that voters who want their elected representatives to vote a certain way on the bill have no way of knowing if they need to get in touch with their senators.

One of the rules reforms passed after the end of the Senate coup in July would solve both the problem of leadership’s reluctance to move the bill to the floor and anonymity with respect to senators’ positions on the issue. It’s called a petition for chamber consideration, and it allows the bill sponsor to request that a bill receive a timely floor vote. If three fifths of the chamber – or 37 senators – sign the petition, the bill is considered on the first legislative day after four days have passed. By signing the petition – a public document under New York’s open records law – senators can go on the record with their support of the bill and force the legislation to the floor without the blessing of chamber leadership.

The new Senate rules – perhaps the only redeeming thing about the coup that deadlocked the chamber for a month this summer – included a lot of good changes, but the real test is yet to come: members of the Senate actually have to take advantage of their new rights.

After decades of secrecy and leadership stranglehold over the legislative process, rank and file members finally have an opportunity to speak for themselves. But will they take it?

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