Friday, January 15, 2010

Reform is More than Words on a Page

We've praised the Senate for some of the rules changes it made last year and, frankly, the Senate should be praised for those new rules: while far from perfect, the rules passed last summer were an important change in Albany, and the Senate was promising that we'd see more to come (which is, of course, a recurring theme in Albany).

But we've also long said that in the end, it's the execution of the rules changes by the Senate, rather than the rules themselves, that are going to make the difference. If the new rules are just words on paper, they're just words . . . and the Senate's promises of reform worse than empty.

This morning, Senator Schneiderman, chair of the Senate’s Select Committee to investigate Senator Monserrate’s conviction, stated that the transcripts of the committee’s meetings would be posted online because “this was a significant enough matter that the public [has] a right to know.”

We agree that the public should have access to transcripts of the meetings held by this committee, but this should not be an exception to the rule. The rules passed by the Senate in June of 2009 require the Senate to make all legislative records, including “records of committees, agendas, votes, and minutes [emphasis added]” available in a searchable and sortable internet database. As of this writing, the Senate is in partial violation of this rule.**

In the resolution passed along with the new rules containing this provision, and in the report issued by the Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform this spring, the Senate also promised to consider other reforms to make the committee process more robust and transparent by the end of 2009, so while we're at it, whatever happened to those promised reforms?

The Senate has a lot on its plate with the possible expulsion of Monserrate and ethics reform, but they must not be allowed to ignore their unfinished business with respect to rules. We'll keep watching and keep you informed. We want nothing more than to be able to praise the Legislature for real reforms, but we can't do it if the reforms are pretty words on paper and nothing more.

**UPDATE: Andrew Stengel, Senior Adviser for Government Reform and former Brennan Center staffer, contacted us this evening and noted that that the senate has not violated the entirety of the rule cited above (we added the modifier "partial" after his call): it does now make committee meeting agendas, voting records, and attendance available online. This is certainly a big step forward and we applaud the senate for its efforts and recognize that all changes may not yet be realized, given that the 2010 term has just begun. However, we would like to see all committees follow the lead of the Monserrate committee and comply with the full rules by posting meeting minutes - reflecting the substance of committee discussions - on the open senate website in the new year.

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