Friday, December 22, 2006

Urban Justice Center v. Pataki

Yesterday, the First Department of the Appellate Division dismissed the lawsuit against Governor Pataki, Assembly Speaker Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Bruno filed by the Urban Justice League, Democratic Senator Liz Krueger and Republican Assemblyman Tom Kirwan.

The original complaint, which relied in part on our 2004 report on New York’s legislative process, argued that, among other things, minority members in both chambers received less money for member items and office operations than majority members. It also alleged, as we have argued, that it is practically impossible for minority members to bring bills to the chamber floor for a vote without the express approval of the speaker or majority leader.

As the New York Post writes, “In a decision late last year, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jane Solomon tossed out the bulk of the suit's claims, saying it was up to the Legislature to change the way it did business.”

The appellate court agreed, saying that the claims were largely political matters and nonjusticiable by the courts.

With this ruling, it is now even more important that the Legislature take the reins and institute changes to its legislative process. Without a change of heart by the leadership or an uprising from the rank-and-file members, an open and accountable legislative branch will always be beyond our grasp.

Funding for members’ offices should not be contingent on keeping good favor with the legislative leaders.

Bills with overwhelming support should not be left to languish in committee because the chamber leadership disapproves.

The legislative process should be efficient, responsive, deliberative, accessible, and accountable to the people of New York State. It is time for the rules of the Senate and Assembly to reflect this fact.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Government Disclosure under Pataki

An article in this morning’s Times Union reviews Governor Pataki’s record on agency disclosure in state government.

The article notes that while the paper had to take legislative leaders to court to force them to disclose member item spending, Pataki was more forthcoming and provided details of his own discretionary spending without litigation.

Also highlighted is Pataki’s support for three bills during his tenure that strengthened the Freedom of Information Law. Pataki has also overseen improvements of agency websites that allow the public to access government documents.

We applaud Governor Pataki for his modest but important moves to make government more transparent and urge Governor-elect Spitzer to build on this legacy. With Spitzer’s strong stance on government reform and accountability, we expect that he will indeed pick up the mantle of making government agencies more accessible to the public.

Like the Times Union, though, we also hope to see the leadership in the Senate and Assembly work harder to make the legislative process more open and accountable. We know first hand, from the research on our latest report, that obtaining documents from the Legislature can be frustrating, expensive, and time-consuming, even for an organization with a full-time staff.

We strongly believe that both the executive and legislative branches should build an online system for providing important government documents to ordinary New Yorkers.

Categories: General

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Newsday on judicial elections

This morning’s Newsday included an overview of the reforms the editorial board believes should be implemented in the state’s court system, including a switch to "merit selection" of judges from the convention system that was recently found unconstitutional.

The constitutional amendment process that would be required to implement "merit selection" would take a number of years, and whether that form of an appointment system would be an improvement over an elective system is still an open question, in our view. The devil is in the details in both cases, but we are interested in examining any system that is constitutional and is likely to improve diversity on the bench. None of the current proposals to “tinker” with the convention system satisfies either of those criteria.

It's also important to clear up one misconception in the editorial: Newsday didn’t quite capture the current status of judicial elections when it said: “The legislature has to adopt an alternative.” In fact, if the Legislature fails to act, we will move to a direct primary system in September 2007, as directed by U.S. District Court Judge Gleeson and affirmed by the 2nd Circuit.

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Residency Law

Christopher Ketchum in Monday’s Times Union made this shocking revelation:
I am a repeat offending felon, but the cops in New York have yet to catch up with me. The offenses revolve around my licentious voting habit. I enjoy voting, and I try to do so in every election. The problem, where state law is concerned, is that I am illegally registered to vote from my father's house in Brooklyn, where I occasionally crash but where I haven't lived with any permanence in more than a decade. As a freelance writer, I am by nature and inclination nomadic. So I figured the easiest thing to do was to maintain a voting address at my dad's place, which isn't going anywhere.
Ketchum writes that state courts and county officials have long ignored what he considers to be a “lunatic” part of New York residency law:
It demands that voters maintain, in the language of the statute, a “fixed, permanent, principal home.”
Of course, there are scads of New Yorkers who face the same problem as he does; students, the homeless, and those who are simply transient by nature simply do not have “permanent” residences.

Ketchum notes, though, that in 1999, a lawyer and reformer named John Kennedy O’Hara was prosecuted for registering from one of his two legitimate residences in Brooklyn.

Under this precedent, even Bill and Hillary Clinton could be prosecuted for voting in Westchester County when they established a residence there while they were still living in the White House.

Certainly, the government has the right to demand that people only vote in one location that they consider their primary residence. But the right to vote is as fundamental for students, freelancers, and other “mobile” residents as anyone else, and states and localities should ensure their registration laws do not discourage or block these citizens from registering and voting.

For more on student voting, read our policy brief.

Categories: General, Voting

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Spano's reflection on his last days as a legislator

This morning’s Journal News featured a story describing outgoing Senator Nick Spano’s final days as a state legislator and reviewing his 28 years of service. We thought this quote from Spano about the recent special session was interesting:
It's not surprising we're ending my final active day in the state Capitol with hours and hours of intense negotiations that ultimately led to nowhere.
The frustrating, ultimately unsuccessful special session is indicative of how back room dealing is simply not the most efficient, effective way to govern. Instead of shoving through as many bills as possible at the end of June and in special session, the Legislature should have transparent, substantive debate during committee meetings, bill hearings, floor sessions, and conference committees.

In our analysis of major bills passed in 2005 for our latest report, we found that 36% of major bills were passed in the Senate and 40.4% were passed in the Assembly during the last three days of the session or during special session.

There was also very little floor debate on major bills during 2005: 89.9% of major bills were passed in the Senate and 89% were passed in the house without discussion on the chamber floor at all.

Similarly, we found that there were almost no hearings on specific major legislation that passed both houses in 2005, and there were almost no conference committees held to reconcile differences between major bills.

Clearly, we need an open and accountable legislative process, not closed door deal making, to formulate innovative solutions to the serious problems facing New York State.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Friday, December 15, 2006

Spitzer in response to special session

From the Times Union blog, Spitzer on the Legislature's special session:
As I’ve said, I oppose a pay raise, unless and until we have fundamental reform in an array of areas, including ethics, lobbying, elections, campaign finance and budget reform.

If those reforms are enacted, I would support a comprehensive pay bill for judges, legislators and commissioners similar to the proposal recommended by Chief Judge Kaye.

Categories: General

Does New York need term limits?

The Politicker, the New York Observers blog, noted yesterday that a new Quinnipiac poll shows that New Yorkers overwhelmingly favor term limits for state representatives, 67 - 27%.

While the Brennan Center does not have a formal position on term limits, we believe the perceived need for such a change could be ameliorated by implementing other effective solutions that would go a long way toward making officials more accountable to their constituents.

What New York really needs are elections that matter. Right now, we have a Legislature with an almost 100% reelection rate, yet our representatives dont deliver the kinds of innovative policy solutions our state needs.

We need campaign finance reform (which the Quinnipiac poll found to be very or somewhat important to 82% of respondents) to keep campaign contributions from unduly influencing elected officials and ensure that officials are responsive to all their constituents; we need redistricting reform to promote fair representation and competitive elections; and we need legislative rules reform to make sure that rank-and-file lawmakers have the power and the resources necessary to effectively represent their constituents.

These reforms would enhance the quality of representatives and representation in New York and make term limits unnecessary.

We know term limits have been a hot topic in the state for years, so we'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject!

Categories: General, Campaign Finance, Legislative Rules, Redistricting

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Brennan Center and Manhattan Institute Will Soon Take Over the World

In a series of statements we can only descibe as "curious," Senator Volker attacks the Brennan Center's recent analyses of the New York State Legislature as a nefarious plot by New York City residents to tax upstate. And our next door neighbor the Manhattan Institute (who knew they were so close by?) is apparently in on the plan as well.

Our response can be found here.

When the Times and the Sun Agree

It isn't every week that the editorial boards of the New York Times and the New York Sun issue editorials with similar conclusions. But looking at the state of the State Legislator and whether or not our legislators deserve a pay raise, both papers agree that there is a serious need for reform in the way the legislature operates.

From the Times on Sunday:

[Legislators] have failed to create rules that make the Legislature democratic. Right now, the Assembly and State Senate work more like political dictatorships than the democratic bodies they are supposed to be. The governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader should not be the only representatives of this entire state. There should be real committees and some voice for minority party members, just to name two concepts that have atrophied in Albany.

And from the Sun yesterday:

[E]ven most town meetings or small city councils and county boards of supervisors have agendas that are set in advance, with items docketed and noticed to the public and the press in writing well in advance. Often, elsewhere, there are public committee hearings, extended floor debates, and dissenting votes, all of which are rare in Albany. Mr. Pataki may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat this week and announce some final significant accomplishments. We wish him luck . . . But if any deal is announced at the last minute as a fait accompli, it will be diminished by the knowledge that for all Mr. Pataki's accomplishments, opening up government in Albany for the public to see is one area where the secret last-minute negotiations never seem to result in a legislative breakthrough.

They must be on to something. Greater transparency, deliberativeness, accountability: no matter the political ideology, almost all disinterested parties can agree that a better process will lead to better crafted and more thoroughly considered legislation. If you believe in democracy, that has to be a good thing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Times Union on transforming the Albany power dynamic

The Times Union yesterday morning:
Even a governor with a strong mandate will not be able to convince legislators to change their internal rules. Patronage, endorsements, photo-ops and other traditional tools a governor has will not suffice.
We agree that it will take more than a reform-minded governor to convince legislators to change their ways. That’s why it’s crucial that we keep our legislators’ feet to the fire by calling and demanding that they create a more responsive, deliberative, accessible, accountable, and efficient Legislature. Ask your senator or Assembly member to support a resolution that makes the following rules changes:

  • Strengthen the committee process by creating mechanisms to force hearings and votes on bills;
  • End the stranglehold that leadership has over bills getting the floor by creating a mechanism for rank-and-file members to force floor votes;
  • Institutionalizing conference committees; and
  • Ending leadership control over the resources and staff available to members and committees.

You can find your senator here and your Assembly member here.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Friday, December 08, 2006

As if you needed another reason to support campaign finance reform

If someone told you that an elected official had used campaign contributions to pay for lawyers to defend him against a criminal investigation brought on by corruption charges, you’d probably expect that official to be in even more trouble than he was to begin with.

But because we live in New York, you’d be wrong.

According to the Daily News, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who is in the middle of a controversy surrounding his use of public funds to pay for his wife’s chauffer, has used $750,000 of campaign funds on criminal defense fees.

Why is this legal?

The Daily News reports:
A 1989 advisory opinion by the state Board of Elections…is that campaign dollars can be used to pay legal fees if the case “arises out of the holding of public office.”
This is only one of the more outrageous loopholes in a truly atrocious campaign finance system. See our own Suzanne Novak’s op-ed earlier this year on these types of personal use abuses.

We urge the Legislature to act in the spirit of Governor-elect Spitzer’s recent executive actions and pass real campaign finance legislation that includes a public financing system, dramatically lower contribution limits, stronger disclosure laws, and enhanced enforcement.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

(Re)allocation of resources

The Utica Observer Dispatch calls on Governor-elect Spitzer to demand reform in the way the legislature allocates member-items (also known in some circles as pork):

Every year, Albany leaders divvy up $200 million of your money. It's far from equitable, since majority legislators — Senate Republicans, Assembly Democrats — feed first at the trough, leaving the scraps for those in lesser standing, even though their constituents pay taxes and live in communities in need of new fire equipment or children's playgrounds, too.

True, true. And might we add, the same holds true for member spending on staff and office resources, where majority members (Republicans) get 82% more than minority members (Dems) in the State Senate, while in the Assembly majority members (Democrats) get 47% more per member than minority members (Republicans). This stands in stark contrast to the way things work in Congress or even the New York City Council -- where all members are given the same allocation, regardless of party.

Categories: General

Monday, December 04, 2006

Majority Leader: Flawed Process = Flawed Outcome

Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz on the hospital closing process: “A flawed process cannot result in anything but a flawed outcome.”

We couldn't agree more Majority Leader Tokasz! Wouldn't it be great to have a legislative process where there were actually hearings on major legislation that was destined to become law? Where a bill could be debated on the floor and brought to a vote even if the Speaker objected? Where conference committees were institutionalized, so there was a public airing of the differences between bills, rather than a closed-door resolution (or no resoluation at all)?

Call your legislator and tell him or her that you agree with Majority Leader Tokasz. A flawed process leads to flawed outcomes. Process matters. And we need a more open, representative, deliberative process in New York.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Friday, December 01, 2006

Guest Blogger Mark Bitz

NYS Senate and Assembly Rule Reform Matters

Process matters! The rules matter! Democratic principles generate superior legislation. When feedback from all of the citizenry enters the mix, creative synergistic solutions that balance the needs of the individual community, business, and environment emerge. Everyone wins. In contrast, when the process is rigged to further partisan power and lifetime incumbency, as it currently is in NYS, the legislation is neither creative nor synergistic, marginalizes large numbers of people, distorts free market signals, and generally harms our economy.

How bad is the problem? Speaker Silver represents one of the 150 state Assembly districts, yet earmarks for his district $7 million of the $50 million member item money available for all 150 districts. Silver takes 21 times his fair share. In addition, he uses the remaining $43 million to control the representatives in his party. The rules, which allow this behavior are inequitable, undemocratic, and an outrage!

The NYS Senate and Assembly's implementation of the Brennan Center's 2006 Update recommendations is essential to our citizens and state's future!

Mark Bitz is President of Plainville Farms and and author of Creating a Prosperous New York State.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules