Friday, March 30, 2007

Sausage-Making May Be an Unsavory Spectator Sport, but Voters Deserve a Chance to See It

The AP reports that Governor Spitzer and legislative leaders, “after six hours of closed-door meetings,” have emerged with a deal that they hope will result in the third on-time budget in a row.

So what’s wrong with an on-time budget?

Governor Spitzer is right that we should expect our leaders to produce a budget by the April 1st deadline, but we don’t agree that transparency of the budget process should be sacrificed to timeliness. Our leaders should also show that they are committed to opening the process to public scrutiny. After all, while important, the novelty of on-time budgets has worn off to some degree--before reform fever hit Albany in full force this year, Governor Pataki and legislative leaders had managed to usher two budgets in a row to the finish line on time.

Unfortunately, this budget cycle seems to have been more about securing the outcome by the deadline, no matter how rushed, secretive, and possibly unrepresentative of the people’s will, than it was about employing an open, accountable process.

We were encouraged, though, to see that a few rank-and-file members have tried, however unsuccessfully, to assert themselves as representatives of their constituents and not rubber stamps for party leadership. The Journal News notes that Assembly members Sandy Galef and Greg Ball have been making noise during the budget process. Galef tried to push one of the budget conference committees, normally “window dressing,” to take real action. Ball has repeatedly denounced the lack of member and public participation in the budget process, dubbing himself “Albany’s loudest advocate for reform.”

We applaud Assembly members Galef, Ball, and other rank-and-file lawmakers for attempting meaningful participation in the process. To everyone else, we say, “New Yorkers have strong stomachs. Show us the sausage.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bringing the U.S. Attorney Controversy Home to NY

Alan Chartock in the Troy Record this morning warns that we should keep an eye on the investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bruno by the FBI and “an independent but Republican-appointed U.S. Attorney.” He writes:
Since all of New York and specifically all the players in Albany have been waiting to see whether Bruno would be indicted and since there have been numerous leaks from the Justice Department and FBI to the media about Bruno's prospects and status of the investigation, one has to wonder whether the alleged White House meddling in the Justice Department has taken its toll on the investigation. Look at it this way: New York has become so blue (Democratic) that you can't even see through the water. The last vestige of Republican power in Albany is Joe Bruno and the Republican Senate is holding on for dear life...If an indictment was to be handed down, Bruno would have to move aside and a serious spike would have been driven into the heart of Republican hopes to hold onto the state Senate. If you were Karl Rove or the President and you saw this happening, would you want your own Justice Department to have hammered the last coffin nail?
A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but certainly an interesting perspective on a controversy that has been so prominent in the news over the last few weeks.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Can A Rash of New York Retirements Be Far Behind?

In today's New York Times, Ronald Smothers has an interesting take on a dramatic changing of the guard in New Jersey's legislature. 11 of the State's 40 Senators are about to step down, including the "longest-serving legislator in the State's history." Smothers writes that state senators attribute the high number of retirements this year in part to age and burnout," and notes that the retiring lawmakers have "an average of nearly 26 years of service." (italics ours).

26 years? Is that a long time? We can't be so sure here in New York. For the record, below are the numbers on New York Legislators who have been around for a while:

23 Assemblymembers serving 20 years or longer
16 Assemblymembers serving 25 years or longer
6 Assemblymembers serving 30 years or longer

14 senators serving 20 years or longer
9 senators serving 25 years or longer
7 senators serving 30 years or longer

Longest serving member: Assemblyman Richard Gottfried at 36 years (elected in 1970).

Time to Limit Campaign Funds to the Campaign Trail

Yesterday, the Buffalo News ran an editorial praising the ethics bill that has passed both the Senate and Assembly and is on its way to the Governor, calling it “a 10-foot fence that will push the purchased-access crowd to start buying a lot of 11-foot ladders.”

The editorial specifically focuses on the gift ban:
Gifts from lobbyists to public officials, beyond the traditional knickknacks of coffee mugs and commemorative pens, are banned. Officials can still chow down on a special interest’s dime at banquets and seminars, where their presence is both honorable and public, but not in the corner booth at the oyster bar, where quids and quos may be quietly exchanged. And the all-expense-paid weekend at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews? Right out.
But we agree that there remains a significant loophole that absolutely must be closed. As the BN puts it, donors can’t spring for gifts or travel “unless, of course, the lawmaker or other office holder flies to Scotland at the expense of his or her own campaign fund, to which the lobbyists and their patrons have generously, and legally, contributed. That’s one of those 11-foot ladders that will require more legislation to block.”

Now that we have the 10-foot fence, how about a little barbed wire? Let’s finally pass legislation to crack down on the use of campaign funds for activities off the campaign trail.

Friday, March 23, 2007

More Transparency for Member Items and a Pledge on Project Sunlight

After losing a lawsuit to the Times Union late last year, the Senate and Assembly grudgingly posted on their websites information about the member items that have been doled out within legislators’ districts in the last few years. The Times Union reports this morning that Attorney General Cuomo has closed a deal with legislative leaders to shed more light on member items.

Among the new regulations is the requirement that grant recipients disclose whether they have any close ties to the member delivering the funding. Recipients must also pledge, under penalty of perjury, to use the funds for public purposes.

Tucked in with this was another item of good news about something we have written on since the Senate released its version of the budget. Majority Leader Bruno has apparently pledged to support the $700,000 the Governor asked for to fund Project Sunlight. The Senate, despite being criticized for hiking the budget price tag beyond what the Governor and Speaker Silver had requested, had trimmed this seemingly miniscule amount from its proposed budget.

Now, if only Bruno would get behind the funding for 21 additional workers to oversee campaign finance compliance that the Senate also nixed...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

No Teeth

Yesterday's Utica Observer Dispatch makes the case that campaign finance reform is desperately needed in New York . We certainly agree.

To illustrate their point, the editors state that Majority Leader Bruno was recently caught using the state Senate GOP's campaign funds to help cover legal costs associated with a federal investigation of his activities. As the OD points out, even New York's lax campaign finance laws may not have left room for this questionable use of campaign finance funds:

The use of state campaign funds for legal defense purposes by New York politicians is permitted when the investigation is "related to the political campaign or the holding of public office." That wasn't the case here. The ongoing federal investigation involves Bruno's private dealings with business associates and friends and the flow of state funds to companies with ties to those business associates and friends. Bruno has denied any wrongdoing.

This got us thinking about a very important issue that often gets overlooked when discussing New York's campaign finance laws. Yes, you could cut New York's campaign contribution limits in half, and they would still be higher than almost any other limits in the country; yes, New York has among the worst set of regulations restricting personal use of campaign finance funds (allowing legislators to use funds for things like purchasing pool covers and buying pet food for the office cat); but even where it does have actual restrictions, the enforcement provisions of New York's campaign finance laws have virtually no teeth.

The penalty for violating New York's campaign finance laws is frequently less than a slap on the wrist. When New York finally gets to re-writing its campaign finance laws, making sure that they are followed will be extremely important. The new laws must have teeth.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Barnyard Animals and Redistricting Reform

Back in high school, my father coached my AAU basketball team- a hodgepodge of players who were just good enough to get invited to tournaments, where we would then get manhandled by teams with actual talent. We had very little size, but we played solid, scrappy defense. Unfortunately, we didn't get a lot of rebounds. This incensed my dad, whose primary coaching tool was screaming "BOX!" (as in "box out") as loudly as possible, whenever a shot would go up.

One day, after a particularly disappointing game, he told us the story of some barnyard animals who avoided all of the tasks necessary to prepare a meal for themselves, yet they still wanted to partake in the feast. The protagonist, Henny Penny, would ask them all "Who will pick the grain?" or "Who will knead the dough?", and animals like Lucy Goosey and Turkey Lurkey would summarily reply, "Not I!" Henny Penny was left to do all of the work, but, predictably, the other animals were more than happy to dig in once it was time to eat. The goal of the story was to point out our team's reluctance to do the grunt work that needed to be done (i.e, rebounding), even though all of us wanted to reap the rewards of victory.

Enter Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. Her guest column on redistricting in the Ithaca Journal illustrates how Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey are sometimes the same creature. The beginning of her piece is in the Henny Penny mold, presenting some important considerations and questions for redistricting reform, including compliance with Voting Rights Act, respecting communities of interest, etc.

But these considerations begin to sound more like excuses that undermine reform as the article goes on. For instance, Lifton wonders aloud whether we could find non-partisans "who would be willing to take on the complex task" of redrawing the boundaries for New York's Congressional and state legislative districts, even though 2.3 million New Yorkers are not registered to any political party. And she struggles to understand how an independent commission might be structured (as if one must be adopted out of whole cloth) ignoring the fact that such commissions already exist elsewhere. In short, it's as if she's premptively saying "Not I!", a la Turkey Lurkey.

In fairness, I have no trouble with being cautious on redistricting reform; we should be wary of recreating the current structure that keeps the power to draw district lines, in essence, with the legislature. Similarly, we must ensure that minority communities get a fair shake. However, those who are facilitating the discussion should, at the very least, present redistricting reform as an issue with obstacles and substantial benefits, not simply highlighting the negatives. Had Henny Penny pitched the work as back-breaking labor to produce a meal that was "pedestrian" or "lacking inspiration", the story wouldn't make any sense. Who's going to give up a day of frolicking on the farm for that?

The Brennan Center salutes any and all who support meaningful and effective redistricting reform, including Assemblywoman Lipton. But we hope said supporters are converting more of our state's Turkey Lurkeys into Henny Pennys, and not the other way around.

The Journal News on Restoring Funds for Project Sunlight

The Journal News ran a great editorial this morning criticizing the Senate’s stripping of funds for Project Sunlight from their proposed budget. They put the $700,000 item in the context of a budget of $120 billion, “give or take a few billion dollars,” and conclude that Project Sunlight would give us some great bang for comparatively few bucks:
Imagine being able to type in your lawmaker's name, hitting a button, and in an instant learning who butters her bread and how? Think that might get us a better brand of leadership?
That would definitely be a refreshing development in a state that has too long suffered under obfuscating lawmakers.

Majority Leader Bruno and the Senate majority should restore the funds to their proposed budget, and Governor Spitzer, Assembly Speaker Silver, and Attorney General Cuomo shouldn’t take no for an answer.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Congress Should Mandate Effective Post-Election Audits

This afternoon, our own Larry Norden presented testimony on post-election audits before the House of Representatives Committee on House Administration, Subcommittee on Elections.

He argued that, while voter-verified audit records are a necessary component of secure election systems, they are not by themselves sufficient to address the security and reliability issues that the Brennan Center and other groups have identified. Voter-verified records will only have real security value if they are regularly used to check electronic tallies.

The Brennan Center has concluded that an effective audit scheme will do the following:
  • Use transparent and random selection processes for all auditing;

  • Allow the losing candidate to select precinct(s) or machine(s) to be audited;

  • Place an independent person or body in charge of the audits;

  • Implement effective procedures for addressing evidence of fraud or error;

  • Encourage rigorous chain of custody practices;

  • Audit a minimum percentage of precincts or machines for each election, including at least one machine or precinct for each county in the state;

  • Record and publicly release numbers of spoiled ballots, cancellations, over-votes, and under-votes;

  • Audit the entire system, not just the voting machines themselves; and

  • Increase scrutiny in close elections.

If Congress fails to act, we urge New Yorkers to support strong audit procedures on the state level to bolster the audit requirements already in place.

Rochester Businessman Enumerates Crucial New York Reforms

The Democrat and Chronicle ran an essay by Joseph Klein, president of Klein Steel Services in Rochester, detailing how to pull upstate out of its “decline into the ‘new Appalachia.’”

We were especially pleased to see that he considers our recommended reforms to the way the Legislature operates (item #7 on Klein’s list) crucial to reversing this downturn.

Indeed, regardless of partisanship, ideology, and geography, all New Yorkers need and deserve a properly functioning Legislature that is responsive, deliberative, accessible, accountable, and efficient. This means that legislators must reform the operating rules of the Senate and Assembly to allow rank-and-file members to force hearings and votes on bills; end the stranglehold leadership has over getting bills to the floor; institutionalize conference committees; and codify a formula for giving all members an equal base allowance for office resources and staff.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Going Beyond the "Maine" Parties

You may remember us mentioning in October that Massachusetts was considering the adoption of fusion voting, which would allow candidates to be listed on the ballot next to more than one party. This system, which has found great success in New York, was unfortunately resoundingly opposed by Massachusetts voters last November.

Now some in Maine are similarly looking to us for inspiration on ballot access. The Kennebec Journal ran an op-ed yesterday by the director of a public affairs program at Colby College, calling for Mainers to take a hard look at fusion voting. L. Sandy Maisel writes:
I have long opposed third parties as divisive and argued that those who support third parties waste their votes, often with the effect of electing the person they least favor in a multi-candidate race. Think of Green Party voters in Florida in 2000 who elected President Bush, despite the fact that most of them would have favored Al Gore if only the two major party candidates had been running.

But that argument does not hold in New York, because in New York minor parties are allowed to nominate one of the major party candidates as their candidate as well -- and the votes cast for that candidate on any party lines on which his or her name appears are added to that candidate's total vote.
We at the Brennan Center have long touted fusion voting as an effective way for minor parties to gain some footing while avoiding the spoiler problem mentioned by Ms. Maisel. We hope Maine voters will use New York as a positive example and adopt some form of fusion voting.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Fair Formula for Member Allocations Should Be Codified in the Rules

Yesterday afternoon, the Times Union’s blog Capitol Confidential detailed how the Assembly minority during the Pataki years received money to help compensate for the fact that they were allocated less for staff and resources than their majority counterparts. This year, though, Assembly Speaker Silver increased the level of funding for the minority conference from $40,000 per member to $100,000, which would make up for the money they used to receive from Governor Pataki.

While we appreciate the steps Speaker Silver has taken toward more equal allocation of funds, it is still unacceptable that members of the minority, who are elected from districts with the same population as members of the majority, are not guaranteed an equal allocation of staff and resources to represent their constituents.

It would not even be sufficient for a proportional amount of the budget for staff and resources to be allocated to the majority and minority conferences to be distributed to the individual members by the party leaders. While this would introduce a much needed element of fairness, it would still not ensure that resources are distributed based on objective criteria rather than loyalty to leadership.

The base allocation of funds—representing the bulk of office and staff allowances for legislators—should be distributed equally among the members, regardless of party or loyalty. Extra funds for members with leadership positions should be small compared to the base amount received by each member. Most importantly, the formula for member allocations should be codified in the chamber rules.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Times Union Responds to Bruno on Budget Provisions for Transparency

This morning's Times Union takes Senate Majority Leader Bruno to task (and rightly so, we think) for the Senate's stripping of provisions for Project Sunlight and additional campaign finance overseers from its proposed budget.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

BC, CCNY, NYPIRG and NYLWV Urge Restoration of Funds in Senate Budget Proposal

As we mentioned yesterday, the Senate’s proposed budget strips out funding for new campaign finance overseers and for Project Sunlight, Attorney General Cuomo’s initiative that would create a campaign finance database with information about legislators, lobbyists, and special interests.

These provisions in Governor Spitzer’s budget would be a great step toward enhancing accountability and transparency in state government. We have joined Common Cause, NYPIRG, and the League of Women Voters in sending a letter to Senate leaders, urging them to restore the funds in the budget for these important items.

We Must Go Beyond "Modest" Tinkering on Judicial Reform

From Crain's New York Business:
On other matters, Judge Kaye defended the current convention-based system of choosing judges, saying only modest reforms are needed, such as modifying the conventions to allow for more candidates to participate and winning legislation requiring judicial screening committees.

Her position differs sharply from many groups -- namely the Brennan Center for Justice, the New York Bar Association, the Fund for Modern Courts -- who support fundamental reforms including merit selection.
While the Brennan Center has publicly supported judicial pay raises, this article misrepresents the Center's position on reforming New York's selection process for state Supreme Court judges. The Center is agnostic as to the question of appointments versus elections in the abstract.

Where, however, as in New York, elections are required under the state constitution, the Center's unequivocal position is that voters and candidates are entitled to more than a sham that merely masquerades as an election - which is what New York has now. The Center's position is that fundamental democratic reforms - rather than the "modest" tinkering Judge Kaye references - are necessary both as a matter of law and policy.

ReformNY Gets a Face-Lift

Don't be fooled by the snappy new colors--you're still at ReformNY! The Brennan Center has a new logo, so we thought we'd also roll out an updated template.

Along with the visual changes, our posts will no longer come from the generic BrennanCenter user. You'll be hearing from different staff at the Brennan Center, depending on which issue the post covers. That way, you can direct your questions and comments (which we welcome and encourage!) to the expert on that topic.

We've also updated and expanded our labels so you can focus on topics that interest you.

Let us know what you think!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Senate Should Restore Funds for Project Sunlight and Campaign Finance Staff

We were disappointed but not terribly surprised to find that the Senate’s budget proposal strips out several important provisions to enhance accountability and oversight of candidates for public office. As the Times reports:
The Senate budget also rejects money for 21 new state workers to oversee compliance with campaign finance regulations and cuts financing for Project Sunlight, a plan by Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo to build a public database to track the activity of lobbyists, donors, elected officials and special interests.
Enforcement is a crucial part of a healthy campaign finance system. As we concluded in a report last fall, not enough resources and staff are dedicated to investigating campaign finance violations.

We also found that disclosure, which is another important requirement for an effective system, is not very strong in New York. Candidates are not compelled to disclose some key information, such as their accrued expenses or expenditures that are owed but not paid at the time the service is provided. Moreover, despite improvements in 2005, the accessibility of information on the campaign finance remains inadequate. This is exactly the problem that Project Sunlight is designed to fix.

The final budget should restore funds for Project Sunlight and additional campaign finance staff.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Whither Transparency? Some Troubling News

Bill Search No Longer Includes Past Sessions or Voting Records...

In our copioius spare time here at the Brennan Center, we like to head to New York's Legislative Information bill search and reminisce about past unanimous votes and hearings never held. Recently, we've noticed something a little disturbing -- a move (possibly unintentional) away from transparency.

While New York's bill search site has never been as sophisticated as those of some states (see Ohio’s for a good example), the site has provided information like bill status, text, and sponsor’s memos.

However, since the beginning of the new session, the site no longer has information on bills that were introduced in the 2005-06 session. We made a phone call to the Assembly Public Information Office when we first noticed this in January, and after a few transfers, we were told by a man with a very reassuring voice that this phenomenon was temporary and would be resolved within a week or so.

We’re now regretting not getting that guy’s name and number, as many weeks have passed with no change.

A dearth of information from past sessions severely hampers the public’s ability to understand the history of specific pieces of legislation. This issue is brought into sharp relief by the fact that sponsor’s memoranda, which are available on the site for most bills, often refer to “prior legislative history” that is not available to the user. Without access to information from prior sessions, the public has no direct way of understanding how issues and bills have evolved over time.

Also (and perhaps more significantly) the site no longer appears to provide voting information on bills that have been passed (or defeated, though that rarely, if ever, happens in our Legislature). It is obviously very difficult for voters to hold their representatives accountable in the voting booth if they have no ready access to information about their legislators’ actions.

We are preparing a letter that includes this information and we’ll post it once we send it to the Legislature. And we'll be sending it just as soon as we can figure out who to send it to. So far, our attempts at penetrating the bureaucracy to figure out who runs the bill search website have been unsuccessful. Not a great statement about the transparency of a Legislature that claims to be reforming its ways.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Podcasts from Your Legislator?

When we saw in The Villager that Senator Tom Duane, who represents a fair chunk of the West Side, had released a new episode of his podcast on the legislative process, we got excited.

Unfortunately for us, Senator Duane’s monologue was more for the layman than for policy wonks. He spoke for several minutes, periodically interrupted by catchy, upbeat jazz, giving a quick overview of the structure of the legislature and responding to the charge that minority members are ineffective when it comes to legislating. He admitted that it isn’t easy for members of the minority party to get legislation passed with their names on it, but he contends that the most important factor in pushing an issue through the Senate is passion, not party.

We think it’s great to see a politician using new(ish) technology to reach out to New Yorkers who might not be hit by traditional media. The podcast format has the potential to help rank-and-file members of the legislature to participate in a dialogue with their constituents and disseminate information that would not otherwise be available to the public. We hope to see Senator Duane keep it up and others catch on.

Just don't let Senator Kruger catch you crossing the street listening to Senator Duane's podcast!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Election Reform on the Federal and State Levels

Along with Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, our own Senator Hillary Clinton introduced an updated version of the Count Every Vote Act yesterday to coincide with the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when several hundred civil rights marchers were attacked by police officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

We think this bill is a good first step toward making sure that all eligible Americans have the opportunity to vote and to have their votes accurately counted.

The CEVA provides a range of improvements to our voter registration system, including:
  • Election Day registration and enhanced registration opportunities for newly eligible voters;

  • Improved security for electronic voting machines, including accessible voter-verified paper records and audit requirements;

  • Requirements for reducing waiting lines at the polls and ensuring equitable allocation of election resources; improvements to provisional balloting;

  • Measures to reduce partisanship and conflicts of interest in election administration; and

  • Enhancements to poll worker training and civic education.

In state voting news, Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins also used the opportunity of the anniversary of Bloody Sunday to introduce election legislation. As noted by the Newsday blog Spin Cycle, her four bills “would create the misdemeanor crime of voter suppression, increase penalties for violations of the election laws, and make push polling illegal.” They report that Assemblyman George Latimer is expected to introduce the legislation in his chamber.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Reform Road to the White House?

This morning’s Observer featured an article comparing “reform governors” Eliot Spitzer and our neighboring executive, New Jersey Senator-turned-Governor Jon Corzine. Writer Steve Kornacki wastes no time in calling out the possible higher aspirations of both men:
There is an expression—proven throughout American history—that the road to the White House runs not through Congress but through the State House.

That certainly helps explain why Jon Corzine, five years after purchasing a U.S. Senate seat for at least $63 million, happily walked away from the world’s most exclusive club—with a year remaining on his term—to take up residence in Trenton. Or why Eliot Spitzer, the fabled “Sheriff of Wall Street,” has worked to leverage his phenomenally high-profile tenure as New York State Attorney General into a stint as Governor.

Tellingly, neither man has moved to discourage rumors that they may one day run for President. And each sees reforming the culture of state government—in some of the most dysfunctional and hack-ridden circumstances in the country—as his ticket to the national stage.
We find it fascinating that "reform" of dysfunctional state government has become such a high-profile issue that commentators see accomplishments in this area as a potential ticket to the White House.

Brennan Center Federal Election Reform Website Goes Live

A new opportunity to fix our election systems has arrived, and momentum is building in Congress to ensure that all eligible Americans have a fair and equal opportunity to vote and to have their votes counted. As promised last week, the Brennan Center is launching a new website,, to serve as a resource for election reform efforts at the federal level. The site is centered on a comprehensive agenda for election reform that has been endorsed by 25 organizations. The Brennan Center has also co-authored a policy paper detailing and expanding on this agenda, which we think Congress should use to guide its policy-making decisions.

Keep checking it out, as information, news and analyses of pending legislation, federal hearings and election reform issues will be updated regularly.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

More on Judges from the Poughkeepsie Journal

From today's Poughkeepsie Journal:
A decision by the nation's highest court to review New York's faulty system for selecting candidates for state Supreme Court justice means the process will, regrettably, continue for at least one more election. When it rules next fall, the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold the view of two other federal courts that the method of selecting candidates for the state's trial courts is unconstitutional and must be changed.

The state needs a process that ensures only the most qualified candidates can become judges in the state's trial courts and still gives voters a voice in who serves on the bench. Neither of those objectives are guaranteed under the current setup...

Regardless of what the federal court ends up deciding, it's clear the existing method for selecting state Supreme Court judges needs fixing.
Though it’s an uphill battle to get powerbrokers to give up their influence over the judiciary, we urge lawmakers to do away with the corrupt closed conventions and to provide qualified candidates who have the support of their party's rank-and-file with meaningful access to the political process.

Buffalo News on "The Unholy Hybrid"

From the Buffalo News, in a part of the state where it’s a balmy 2 degrees (negative 17 with the wind chill):
The unholy hybrid now used to select New York trial court judges neither respects the merit of the candidates nor listens to the voice of the people. Two levels of the federal judiciary have ruled that the system is unconstitutional. That should have been the end of it...

Judges hold a great deal of power in our society. They should owe their elevation to either their qualifications or their public support, not to the high-placed friends they’ve had to buy for themselves along the way.
We wholeheartedly agree.

...And the Assembly Rules Fight Ends

As promised, we’re back for an update on last night’s Assembly rules resolutions, and as predicted, each one went down to defeat.

For those of you who are interested in the specific language of the proposals, you can use the Bill Search and check out resolutions E228 through E243.

Here are the highlights:

Strengthening the Committee Process

E230 would have made it easier for rank-and-file members to force a hearing on specific legislation, reducing the threshold from a majority to a quarter of the committee.

E234 would have mandated the transcription of committee meetings. More importantly, these transcripts would be made available on the Assembly website.

Easing the Restrictions on Getting Bills to the Floor

E242 would have eased the requirements for getting a bill discharged from committee. It also would have allowed for five (up from one) discharge motions per day and would have required that motions to discharge be handled at least five days before the end of the session.

E243 would have given each member of the Assembly the chance to choose one of his or her bills during each two-year term and have that bill brought to the floor for a vote on its merits.

Institutionalizing Conference Committees

E228 would have actually required the Assembly Committee on Conference Committees, which was created in the last round of reforms in 2005, to meet at least once before the end of the legislative session. The Committee would be charged with evaluating claims by Assembly bill sponsors that the Senate had passed a similar bill. Significantly, the language of this proposal would have forced the Speaker to call for a conference if recommended by the Committee.

Ending Leadership Control over Resources and Staff

E241 would have required that the minority conference receive a share of staff and resources proportionate to their numbers. This would not necessarily prevent the leaders from arbitrarily doling out resources, but it would alleviate the dramatic resource disparity between the conferences. (During the period from October 1, 2005 to March 31, 2006, majority Assembly members spent an average of 47% more than minority members.)

We might have written some of these resolutions differently, but they certainly would have been a significant step toward reform in the Assembly. Unfortunately, it seems that the Assembly Majority is not committed to creating a more responsive, deliberative, accessible, accountable, and efficient legislative process. Members may boo when the Assembly is called dysfunctional, but it's hard to see how the epithet isn't still deserved.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Assembly Rules Fight Begins

The theme of the day at ReformNY appears to be legislative rules. We have just learned that the Assembly Republicans are introducing a series of legislative rules changes on the floor this afternoon. We have not seen the latest version of their proposals, but the fact that they have brought them indicates to us that their attempts at working with the Assembly Democrats to reform the rules have failed. Given what we know about the Assembly, this also means it is certain that all of the Republicans' proposals will fail.

Majority Leader Canestrari has apparently promised (on the floor) that the majority will announce its own proposals for rules reform shortly. We look forward to seeing them. In the meantime, if the Assembly is serious about rules reform, here's what needs to get done:

Strenghten the standing committees, so rank and file members can force a hearing or vote over the objections of the committee chair;

end leadership's stranglehold over what bills get to the floor;

institutionalize conference committees; and

limit leadership control over resources and staff (which includes mandating greater equity in distribution of those resources).

We're not holding our breath, but we'll keep watching and keep you posted.

Update: Capitol Confidential has the Minority Leader's press release that outlines the proposed changes. It looks like a similar list to what was unveiled a couple of weeks ago. The Brennan Center expressed support for a number of these changes -- including a reallocation of resources and institutionalizing conference committees. The devil is in the details, of course, and we have not seen the final language of any of these proposals.

Poor Process, Part Two

This morning’s New York Times featured an op-ed by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester. Brodsky argued:
In fact, the Legislature’s record is a good one. A lot depends on how you measure success. A successful legislature will do three things well: pass laws; provide ordinary people access to power and enable them to influence decisions; and, most important, check abuse of executive power.

By those standards, New York’s Legislature is doing well.
While we agree that the Legislature appears to be improving on the first and last of Brodsky’s measures, the middle one, providing access to the public and rank-and-file members, needs some serious work.

As we wrote earlier today, most of the progress that has been made during Eliot Spitzer’s short term as governor has come at the expense of public input -- with deals brokered behind closed doors without hearings and public comment.

We agree with Assemblyman Brodsky that New Yorkers do have access to their legislators in Albany and their home districts, but under the current rules, this access is all but worthless unless you happen to live in the district of a chamber leader or committee chair. Rank-and-file members have very little power to influence policy in the face of leadership opposition. Our research shows that in 2005 (the last year for which complete stats are available), there were almost no hearings held on major legislation that actually became law; there was substantive debate on fewer than 5% of major bills that became law; fewer than 10% of bills introduced were actually passed into law; and neither house voted down a single bill that was subject to a floor vote. At the very least, this casts some doubt on Assemblyman Brodsky's contention that the legislature is "doing well."

The fact is that process matters. The rules matter. A legislative process that is truly open to public comment and rank-and file member input will create superior public policy. It’s time for the Legislature to adopt truly transformative changes to its operating rules.

Real Progress but Poor Process

In yesterday’s Elmira Star-Gazette, Jay Gallagher reminded us not to be dazzled by the recent bargains that have been struck between Governor Spitzer and legislative leaders:
One thing that hasn't changed, though: All of these deals were negotiated behind closed doors, and lawmakers have no intention of holding hearings on the bills to hear what the public thinks.

When asked about the public being shut out, lawmakers cite the fact that all of these issues have been aired for years around the state, and therefore the public has already had its say.

But they never have had a chance to comment on specific ethics, workers' compensation and sex offender bills that are likely to become law.

And they won't this year, either.
We echo Jay’s sentiment. While we applaud the considerable progress that has been made toward solving some of New York’s most pressing problems, we urge our political leaders to put the breaks on long enough to listen to rank-and-file legislators and their constituents.

Real democracy can be messy. Hearings, debate and public participation may mean deals are amended and legislation altered. But ultimately, we believe, this is for the good. It will make for better legislation and solutions, and ensure that the public and rank-and-file legislators are invested in those solutions (and maybe even come up with a few on their own).

Hearings and public input are crucial elements of responsible government that should not be subject, as they currently are, to the whim of chamber leaders and committee chairs.

Friday, March 02, 2007

An Opportunity for Hillary and the Rest of the '08 Field

Yesterday, the Federal Election Commission ruled that candidates who initially opt out of the presidential public financing system for the general election may opt back in if they return the private money they have raised.

As the Washington Post reports:
Until now, candidates believed that once they started to raise a separate pool of money for the general election, they were committing to running without federal matching funds.

The FEC agreed, however, with Obama's contention that rules prohibiting him from "accepting" donations for a general election run, would not prohibit him from "receiving" those contributions, so long as he held them in a separate account, and if he were to decide to take public funds, simply return the money.
This ruling came at the request of Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who has indicated that he would be open to receiving public funds and abiding by the spending limits for the general election if his opponent agreed to do the same. Normally, an agreement of this nature might seem like a pipedream, but the New York Times reported today that Arizona Senator John McCain, who has long championed campaign finance reform, will participate in the system for the general election if his opponent does.

At least for the primary election, the leading candidates are eschewing the system, which (we believe) needs serious updating.

Still, the ruling gives us hope that public financing at the federal level is not dead. We encourage our own junior Senator and the rest of the ’08 candidates to consider a deal to work within the presidential public financing system for the general election. Moreover, we hope to see the candidates come out in support of reforming the system to make it viable in today’s electoral climate.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Tonight, as part of its ongoing series of public conversations here in New York, the Brennan Center will host "Reforming and Renewing American Government," featuring:

Representative Jerrold Nadler, Chairman, House Subcommittee on the Constitution & Civil Liberties
Joe Conason, Author, It Can Happen Here
Adam Cohen, Editorial Board, The New York Times
Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor, The Nation

The conversation will begin at 6:30 at NYU Law School. It will be moderated by the Brennan Center's Director of Public Initiatives, Kirsten Livingston. Space is limited -- if you'd like to attend, call 212-998-6735 to reserve a seat.

Raft of Bills Voted Out of Assembly's Election Law Committee

Assembly Committee Reports Voting Rights Notification and Restoration Act

The Assembly’s Election Law Committee had a busy day yesterday, reporting out several bills, including A510, A554, A641, A1539, A1540, and A5432. In the coming days we will provide commentary on several of these.

Today, our first stop is Assemblyman Keith Wright’s Voting Rights Notification and Restoration Act. The bill would notify people with felony convictions of their rights, facilitate voter registration, and improve communication between corrections and elections officials.

What exactly are the rights of people with felony convictions, you may ask? Unfortunately, this is a question that many people with felony convictions and even election officials, charged with enforcing the law, have struggled with. (Check out a study by the Sentencing Project about the perceptions of people with felony convictions of disenfranchisement policy.)

During imprisonment and parole, New Yorkers with felony convictions are not allowed to vote. However, upon completion of their prison term and parole, their voting rights are automatically restored.

As a fairly recent survey by the Brennan Center and Demos showed, there is widespread confusion about the law and how it should be properly implemented. By law, former offenders should be registered by elections officials in the same manner as everyone else, but the survey found that nearly one-third of all counties illegally required documentation before registering eligible voters with felony convictions; moreover, many illegally refused to register individuals on probation. (Check out our report on the findings of the survey.) We are happy to report, though, that elections officials have recognized this problem and are working to fix it.

Assemblyman Wright’s bill, which he has reintroduced in this session (A554), would further alleviate the confusion and misinformation surrounding this issue. Yesterday, Wright’s Election Law Committee reported the bill, which was then referred to the Ways and Means Committee.

We're glad to see this bill make it out of the Election Law Committee, and encourage the Assembly to once again pass this important legislation. We hope to see similar movement in the Senate.

Read more about the restoring voting rights to people with criminal convictions.

Also, be on the lookout for the launch of another Brennan Center page, which will feature our perspective on federal election law.