Friday, January 28, 2011

Good Government Groups Continue Push for Senate Rules

In response the rules resolution introduced Tuesday by the Senate Majority, the Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Union, Common Cause/NY, League of Women Voters of New York State, and New York Public Interest Research Group sent the following letter to Majority Leader Dean Skelos. In the letter, we reiterate suggestions we have previously made for reforms to the committee process and urge the Senate to have an open and public debate as they consider our proposals.

1/27/2011 Letter to Majority Leader Skelos Re: Rules

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Senate Misses First Key Opportunity for Reforms.

It could have been worse, but it should have been better. Fortunately, there's still time for the Senate to right itself.

As has been reported, yesterday the Senate Majority introduced a resolution for the chamber to adopt the new rules. Senate Democrats have rightly complained that they were provided with the rules only 2 hours before a vote. While the rules were posted on the web, Senate Republicans did not provide a memo explaining the rules changes, or a red-lined version that would allow the public to understand what changes were being made. This is not a good start for those of us hoping legislators might finally be a bit chastened by public anger and therefore be willing to conduct themselves in a more open manner.

There's still time to improve this process. We learned last night that the majority fell one vote short of pushing the bill to the floor for a vote. We hope the Senate uses the extra time to consider, publicly debate and (hopefully) adopt some additional changes.

And what of the substance? The news is not all bad. The Senate Republicans deserve credit for keeping most of the important advances made last session: for the most part keeping term limits on leadership and allowing members to move legislation to the floor over the wishes of leadership. It does not look like we will return to the era of Bruno, where favored members of the majority received nearly all of the spoils, and disfavored members, especially those in the minority, are given almost nothing.

But little has been done to improve the rules. The Brennan Center and other good government groups reached out to members of the Senate on two occasions, calling on the Senators to adopt rules that would build upon reforms introduced during the last session to increase the power of rank and file members, and create for a more open, transparent and accountable chamber. While we have not had sufficient time to thoroughly review the proposed rules, our preliminary analysis reveals the Senate missed a key opportunity to alter the committee process. The new rules failed to advance the power of rank and file members to introduce bills. They fall short of requiring robust committee reports, of strengthening the ability of committee chairs to control their own budget and to make hiring and firing decisions.

Furthermore, where we called for a consolidation of the number of committees, the Senate rules instead created an additional committee -- bringing back the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. The only reason we can see for this is to give another Senator a "lulu," or $12,500 "bonus" for chairing a committee that will do the "work" one of the dozens of already existing committees surely could have done. Since the rules also failed to reduce the number of committees on which a member may serve, we can expect another session where some members will serve on 10 or 11 committees.

We urge the Senate to publicly debate and consider the rules improvements the Brennan Center and other good government groups have proposed for this session. If they can't or won't adopt these changes, they should provide some explanation. The public deserves no less.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Over 50 Groups Call Upon Legislature to Take Action on the Public Financing of Elections

Today in Albany, over 50 groups called upon the legislature to take action to create a system of publicly financed elections in New York State, sending letters to the Assembly and State Senate. The Brennan Center was among the groups, which were comprised of other good government, civil rights, environmental, labor, community, health care, social justice, and grassroots advocacy organizations.

The letters to the members of the Assembly and State Senate, fall on the heels of a letter sent to Gov. Cuomo last week, calling for the governor to make good on his commitment to work to create a system of public financing of elections in New York State – a commitment he made during his State of the State speech as well as on the campaign trail. The letters, posted below, encourage both chambers to work closely with the governor to create a public finance system -- similar to New York City’s Matching Funds System -- that would make New York State a national leader in campaign finance reform.

Letter to Speaker Silver and Assembly

Letter to Majority Leader Skelos and State Senate

Friday, January 21, 2011

On Citizens United Anniversary, Fight for Campaign Finance Reform Continues

As Capital Tonight reported, the Brennan Center, along with other good government groups, is stepping up its calls for the public financing of elections in New York. In a joint letter to Governor Cuomo marking the anniversary of the Citizens United decision, civic groups are reminding the governor of his pledge during his State of the State address to create a system of public financing of elections. New York City’s matching funds system serves as an excellent model for the governor and the legislature to adopt for elections for the entire state.

As the Siena Poll released earlier this week revealed, creating a system of public financing of elections has broad support among New Yorkers -- from both Democrats and Republicans, self-identified liberals, moderates and conservatives. NYPIRG’s recent release on New York’s outrageous contribution limits further reinforces how out of date New York’s campaign finance laws truly are. It isn’t just our legislature that is dysfunctional, but the system that sends legislators to Albany is rotten as well. As my colleague Larry Norden wrote last month, if we truly seek reform the culture in Albany, we must start with the way we finance elections.

The full letter to Gov. Cuomo can be viewed here.

Public Financing -- a Game Changer for New York

To mark the one year anniversary of Citizens United, the Brennan Center's Ciara Torres-Spelliscy appeared on Capital Tonight to discuss the effects of the landmark decision and the Brennan Center’s efforts to curb the influence money and politics in New York through a system of financing of elections.

“Public campaign finance is one of the game changers, and we encourage the new Governor, the Assembly, and the Senate to work together to pass public financing,” Ms. Torres-Spelliscy said.

The full interview is available below.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bipartisan Support for Key Reforms in Albany, New Siena Poll Shows

Following up on Governor Cuomo’s State of the State speech, a new poll by the Siena College Research Institute shows that there is bipartisan support for two key reform issues that are near and dear to us at ReformNY: public financing of elections and full disclosure of outside income and clients by legislators.

70 percent of those surveyed said they support establishing a system of public campaign financing for elections in New York. The effort has bipartisan support with 76 percent support of those who identified themselves as Democrats and 63 percent support by those who identified themselves as Republicans.

Fairing even better, requiring full disclosure of legislators’ outside income and clients showed 84 percent support -- with 85 percent support among Democrats and 89 percent support among Republicans.

Less encouraging however, is the public’s expectation that these reforms are likely to become a reality this year – a clear sign of New Yorker’s disillusionment with their government. Only 16 percent believed passing the ethics bill this year is “very likely”, and 36 percent responded as “somewhat likely.” On the public financing of elections, 9 percent responded as “very likely” and 35 percent as “somewhat likely.”

The public's desire for reform in Albany is clear. As we await the promised ethics bill, we hope that the Governor's office and the Legislature are paying close attention to what their constituents demand.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What’s Wrong with Senate Committees

The Majority and Minority standing committee assignments for the new legislative session serve as an excellent reminder of key reforms which must be made to the committee process: legislative committees must be consolidated and the number of committees on which an individual Senator may serve must be reduced.

As the assignment tables reveal, the Senate has 32 standing committees and some Senators in the majority are serving on up to 11 committee assignments (one of whom is chairing two committees). Several Senators in the minority are also serving on upwards to eight committees. With a legislature that is only convening 63 days this session, should we even bother to expect a Senator serving on 11 committees to devote enough time to any of their assignments?

As we note in our 2004 report, New York’s Senators serve on an average of eight committee assignments – more than any other state legislature in the nation. In many legislatures throughout the country, legislators serve on three to four committee assignments. In the 2004 report, we further note that the New York State Senate’s 32 standing committees made it the second highest in any State Senate. In Senator Squadron’s (who will be serving on six committees himself) recent memo on rules reform, he called for the consolidation of committees and a limit of five committee assignments per Senator. While we would ultimately like to see the number reduced to three, limiting committee assignments would have the potential of increasing productivity in the Senate.

If the new Senate wishes to prove to New Yorkers that they are serious about reforming Albany, then they will have to go back to the drawing board with these committee assignments and the reforms we outlined must be included in the new operating rules.

First test for reform in the "New Albany"

City Hall News reported on Monday that four Senators are currently reviewing the chamber's operating rules, and the Senate may vote on new rules as early as January 18th. A number of the rules changes they are apparently considering seem like they could be important steps forward: making it easier to get bills to the floor over leadership objections, reforming the member item process and ensuring equality of resources among Senators.

Yesterday, Senator Daniel Squadron weighed in on his recommendations for rules reforms, sending this memo to his Senate colleagues. He noted, correctly, that the Senate made substantial progress reforming the rules last year, and urged the Republicans not to slide back on these. He also asks them to go further in a number of areas, including, critically, reform of the committee process. One might cynically ask whether the Democrats are in a position to ask for more reform, given that they had control of the chamber (for most of) last session, and didn't take these steps then. But Senator Squadron, on his own, took more steps than many of his colleagues in his conference.

The Brennan Center has sent its own letters to the Republican Senators, following up on a December 10, 2010 letter from a number of civic groups calling for more reform of the Senate Rules. In particular we urge the Senate to reform the committee process, so that committees serve more of a purpose than providing "lulus" (extra pay) to committee chairs and acting as a rubber stamp (or bottleneck) for leadership. This is critical if the public and rank and file members are to have more power, and if the Senate is to become the deliberative and open body many legislators say they'd like to see.

Among the changes we seek from the Senate:

  • Consolidate legislative committees and reduce the number on which individual Senators may serve
  • Require 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, any individual members’ comments on the bill, and organizations which support and oppose the bill
  • Require 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)
  • Strengthen the ability of committee chairs to control the committee budget and make hiring and firing decisions

In truth, the Assembly has fallen behind the Senate in passing meaningful rules reforms in the last couple of years. We'd like to see the Assembly take on the review of the rules that the Senate seems to be doing now, and make similar changes. We link to our letters to the Senate and Assembly below.

Recommendations for Senate Rules Reforms

Recommendations for Assembly Rules Reforms