Friday, November 20, 2009

Is the Citizen Legislature to Blame? Maybe for Boredom.

In a story in today’s Times, embattled former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno is quoted as attributing his use of a state secretary for private business and collecting consulting fees from myriad entities with state contracts to the fact that New York has a part-time legislature.

With this in mind, we decided to take a look at what the National Conference of State Legislatures has to say about part-time versus full-time legislatures. NCSL stresses that legislatures can’t be divided into two black and white categories, but interestingly enough, NCSL puts New York in a category with California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – states that have longer sessions and larger districts, and where legislators have larger staffs and “are paid enough to make a living without requiring outside income.” In fact, according to NCSL, legislators in New York have the third-highest salaries in the nation. (Granted, $79,500 a year may make it tough to live in and represent a district on the Upper East Side, but the median household income in Saratoga and Rensselear Counties, which Bruno represented, is less than $50,000.)

Aside from salaries and session length, though, New York may be less like California and more like the states that NCSL identifies as requiring less time of legislators and compensating them with quite low salaries that usually must be supplemented with outside income. As we’ve written many times before, legislators in New York spend shockingly little time studying issues through the committee process and improving legislation accordingly. So maybe when Bruno blamed New York’s citizen legislature system for his outside dealings, he was really saying that he got into trouble because he had too much time on his hands.

Fortunately, we know how to fix that problem.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Senators, Advocates, Lobbyists: New Rules Mean New Opportunities Next Year

Of course, the legislature still isn't finished with the serious work it must get done THIS year.

But for advocates and Senators, it may be time to start thinking a little bit about next year, and here's why: the impact of the Senate's new rules could make a huge difference in the operations of the Senate and what gets considered.

There are several new ways to get hearings on bills, to force members to publicly take positions, and to force bills to the floor for debate and a vote. As my colleague Laura Seago has written, proponents of the gay marriage bill might want to use the new rules if they can't get leadership's cooperation. But there are a host of other groups that may want to use the new rules to get their issues on the floor of the senate -- tenants rights groups, property tax reform groups and environmental groups, to name a few.

We've posted a "road map" of the new rules and how they can be used here. It was drafted with Maria Cilenti , Director of Legislative Affairs of the New York City Bar. We hope that advocates (and Senators) will use it. The new rules will only make the legislature more transparent and accountable if rank-and-file members take advantage of them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How to Fix Committees

As we've written before, the Senate has one major hurdle to clear before it largely fulfills its promise of making the chamber more deliberative, open, and accountable. Below is a letter that the Brennan Center sent the Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform and other Senate leaders yesterday outlining the specific reforms that the chamber must make.

November 11, 2009

Dear Senators Valesky and Bonacic:

We write regarding the work of the Temporary Committee on Rules Reform. First, we congratulate the Senate on making significant strides in reforming its operating rules to distribute member resources more equitably, allow members to move legislation to the floor over the wishes of the majority leader, impose term limits on chamber leadership, and increase transparency for the actions of individual members, committees and the full chamber. All of these are significant reforms that provide the Senate with the opportunity to become a more accessible, accountable and efficient chamber. And they place the Senate far ahead of the Assembly in creating a more democratic body, where rank-and-file members will have a greater opportunity to represent their constituents and ensure that the concerns of those constituents get a public airing in the full chamber.

Our greatest reservation about the Senate’s rules changes thus far has been the failure to significantly alter the committee process. Based on our studies in this area, as well as our work in other state legislatures and Congress, we believe that there is no area in the New York state legislative process in greater need of reform than the committee process. We understand from communications with Senators and legislative staff that the Temporary Committee plans to take up this important topic in the coming weeks.

As you are aware, Senators currently sit on so many committees that it is difficult for many these Senators to devote enough time to any of them. There is still no process for reading bills in committee or even for requiring committee members to show up to meetings. Committee reports are almost always perfunctory and lack any description of committees’ work on bills (in addition to making it more difficult for other legislative members and members of the public really understand these bills, a lack of real committee reports -- unique to New York -- makes it exceptionally difficult for the courts to determine legislative intent in cases where the law is unclear). And while the new rules allow members to petition for hearings, it does nothing to require hearings on major legislation.

We strongly urge you to recommend the following changes to the committee process:

  1. Reducing the number of legislative committees on which individual Senators may serve to no more than three to four, as is typical in other state legislatures (including such large states as California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania);
  2. Requiring committee reports issued with any bill voted out of committee to set forth the purpose of the bill, the proposed changes to existing law, section-by-section analysis, the bill’s procedural history, committee or subcommittee votes, and any individual members’ comments on the bill;
  3. Requiring a process for reading, debating and amending any bill before it receives a vote from the committee (absent a vote by the committee to forego that process for any particular bill);[1]
  4. Providing each committee with explicit control over its own budget and the hiring and firing of all committee staff; and
  5. Institutionalizing conference committees, so that when bills addressing the same subject have been passed by both chambers, a conference committee will be convened at the request of the prime sponsor from each chamber or the Speaker and Majority Leader.

If the Senate passes these changes, it will largely fulfill its promise to overhaul its operating rules to promote representation, deliberation, accessibility, accountability and efficiency. Given the challenges New York currently faces, we believe that such changes could not come at a better time.


Lawrence Norden
Senior Counsel, Democracy Program

cc: Sen. Pedro Espada
Sen. Joseph Griffo
Sen. Jeffrey Klein
Sen. Kevin Parker
Sen. John Sampson
Sen. José Serrano
Sen. Malcolm Smith
Sen. Daniel Squadron
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins
Sen. George Winner
Shelly Mayer, Counsel to the Majority
Andrew Stengel, Senior Policy Adviser for Government Reform

[1] This process could be similar to the process used by the Senate Committee on Cities on May 19, 2009.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Breaking One Set of Rules to Enforce Another?

Liz Benjamin is reporting that the Assembly’s ethics committee held a closed-door session this morning, the subject of which committee members have kept tightly under wraps. While it’s good news that the committee – which, as we noted in our 2008 report, sometimes goes years without meeting – is doing its job, the opacity of the process may be cause for concern.

According to the New York State Open Meetings Law, a committee can only hold a closed-door ‘executive session’ after taking a vote “in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered” for the following reasons:

a. matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;

b. any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;

c. information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;

d. discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;

e. collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law;

f. the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation;

g. the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and

h. the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.

It is certainly plausible that options c, d, or f are relevant to official Ethics Committee business, but the committee's failure to disclose the subject of the meeting is suspect. The law allowing executive sessions is designed to protect the public and afford due process to those accused of violating the law, not to obscure the business of the legislature from public view.

Friday, November 06, 2009

"Greater transparency" without information is not greater transparency

To some fanfare, the Senate yesterday unveiled its new open legislation portal. The new site provides some information on bills (i.e., bill text, sponsor memo, status, bill summary, and voting records) that was not previously available on-line in a single place (though, as far as I can tell, it was all available somewhere). The new site is certainly easier to use than the old site.

Unfortunately, the new site still doesn't provide New Yorkers with the kind of critical information residents of other states can get to assess legislators and legislation: full fiscal notes, committee votes, floor debate transcripts, previous versions of amended bills, committee reports, etc.

It's wonderful to have a new database that makes searching easier. It would be more wonderful if the Senate would post information that would the database useful to people who want to fully understand legislation and the actions of their Senators.

We hope that's coming soon.

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?

Monday, November 02, 2009

"This way you do business . . . is against the law."

That is the essence of the federal charges against former Senator Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and, in a way, all of Albany. Or so says an unnamed political operative in a New York Times article by Nicholas Confessore entitled "Bruno's trial seen as a hearing on Albany."

I made much the same point in an AP article authored by Michael Virtanen. Regardless of what the eventual outcome of the Bruno trial, the trial itself is bound to give us weeks of headlines that highlight the pay-to-play culture that so many in Albany take for granted. We can only hope that this will shame the legislature enough to force more reforms, and continue to chip away at the stranglehold party leadership and certain vested interests have over the state.