Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Reform Day Recap and the $55,900 Question

The Brennan Center, represented by Beth Foster, co-author of the last Albany rules update, and yours truly, attended Reform Day ‘08 with the leaders of Common Cause New York, NYPIRG, Citizens Union, Citizen Action, Democracy for New York, among others, and 150 passionate and knowledgeable activists from around the state.

Below are links to some of the media coverage that tell the story, but it’s worth talking about other news today: Governor Paterson reversing Governor Spitzer’s self-imposed $10,000 contribution limit. New York has some of the nation’s highest contributions limits—$55,900 for individuals—and among the loosest campaign finance laws, which allowed Mayor Bloomberg to donate $500,000 to the state Republican party, a form of soft money that the federal government banned in 2002.

The question today is: do we fault Governor Paterson for breaking his predecessor’s pledge. The short answer is no—with a giant but. (In fact Governor Spitzer skirted his own self-imposed limits by seeking bundled contributions.)

I couldn't take issue with the governor for playing by the rules, even if absurdly lax. I hope and have faith that before the end of session the governor will propose and make an energetic effort to enact wide-ranging campaign finance reform starting with lowering the sky-high contribution limits.

A few links to Reform Day coverage:

Even if the governor’s absence caused a bit of a stir, we have hope he’ll embrace the reform agenda.

Attorney Andrew General Cuomo pledged support for an independent Ethics Commission, an independent redistricting commission and gave a shout out to the Brennan Center’s rules report. And the attorney general has rejected 1,000 requests for member item grants so far this year.

Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith declared: “Joe Bruno, your time has come. Reform is on the way!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Extra Credit/Demerit for
NYC Public School Naming?

When does a public school naming smell not as sweet as —but more sour than— a rose?

That’s the issue that Daily News Albany Bureau Chief Joe Mahoney uncovers today in his reporting that a Queens public school will be named for a sitting 19-term state senator. Turns out that Frank Padavan, the soon-to-be namesake of Bellrose’s Glen Oaks campus, is being challenged by a City Councilman James Genaro in what may be one of many competiteve races in the state Senate.

While the value isn’t on the order of the $20 million a year Citibank will reportedly pay the Mets for naming rights to the new stadium Citi Field, the naming of a public school may amount to a form of advertising. It’s no matter if the senator deserves such a honor, which he claims he does, since he was influential in creating the campus in the first place.

There is a legitimate purpose to naming buildings and monuments to honor public figures (John F. Kennedy School, anybody? The late president’s name adorns the fa├žade of my public elementary school on Long Island.) However, it’s a bad idea, at the very least, to do so during a campaign. And it raises the question of an in-kind contribution and/or using public property to promote a reelection campaign.

This name change smells more like skunk cabbage than roses.

Gearing Up for Reform Day

It's exciting to see all the reform-minded press this weekend as we prepare to head to Albany tomorrow for Reform Day. (You can still register and join us in telling our leaders that Enough is Enough!)

The New York Times exposes (in case you didn't already know) the unfair distribution of staff and resources in the Legislature.

The Democrat & Chronicle reports on efforts to tighten ethics enforcement in the wake of recent scandals.

And the Observer-Dispatch and the Press & Sun-Bulletin advocate reform across the board, touching on ethics, rules reform, redistricting, and campaign finance reform.

Let's head to Albany and push for the responsive, deliberative, accessible, accountable, and efficient government New Yorkers deserve!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Observer Shines Sun on Sunshine AG

In today's Observer, journalist Azi Paybarah flashes some good government virtual ink in a well-reported post about the schedule--or lack thereof--of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Apparently, the AG, who has received praise for his work on transparency and opening government, doesn't keep a schedule. The explanation was that the office is protecting the identities of "whistleblowers, witnesses and complainants." It should be noted that the attorney general, like his predecessor, has been aggressively taking on mortgage giants and student loan companies, and recently began a well-advised public integrity investigation.

No public official should refuse to keep a schedule. If there are sensitive meetings of the kind described by the AG's office, then we wouldn't quibble with a redaction here or there. We're pleased that the AG released a reconstructed schedule, though it's only five pages long and covers 13 months.

We hope that going forward--and backward--the AG will continue to record his comings and goings.

In other news, the New York Times points out today that a number of City Council members have relatives on the payroll of their campaign, which is cause to raise an eyebrow, as our good government colleagues point out.

In some cases, probably rarely so, such arrangements are worthwhile. While in his 20's Attorney General Cuomo earned praise as campaign manager for his father's winning gubernatorial bid in 1982. It's unclear how much he was paid, although the following year the current AG worked as a gubernatorial aide earning a salary of $1.

(Full disclosure: I worked in Albany for the attorney general's father in the final years of Governor Cuomo's administration.)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Assembly Hearing Attendance:
Send Members Back to School

In response to the recent spate of construction-related deaths and accidents in the city, this morning the Assembly held a joint hearing of the Codes, Cities and Housing committees at 250 Broadway. As the notice of public hearing points out, there were nine recent construction deaths (and additional injuries). Today only eight Assembly members out of more than 50 from the combined committee membership actually showed up.

This is no doubt an important issue and the members present deserve praise for their oversight and for proposing several bills to further regulate construction and enforce building codes. The acting head of the city Department of Buildings testified, as did a number of city elected officials and advocates.

However, as we know from New York State Legislative Process, the original Albany report released by the Brennan Center in 2004, hearings on bills are a rarity. According to the report, in the Assembly from 1997 to 2001, out of 202 pieces of major legislation that were ultimately passed where there exists complete information, only one was the subject of a committee hearing—.05%. Members respond that they do hold hearings on issues (which, unlike today, aren't usually about specific legislation.)

Committee attendance for meetings or hearings is virtually unknown because, even if recorded, it’s not readily accessible to the public. This is part of a larger problem of a general lack of transparency and accountability in the state legislature. As the process exists today, constituents are left in the dark about the working habits—or lack thereof—of their representatives. Like you and I were subject to in school, attendance should be taken and should be published on the web immediately.

Attending today’s hearing were Jim Brennan and Joe Lentol, chairs of Cities and Codes respectively, and a mix of representatives who represent areas were the accidents occurred and other interested parties: Jonathon Bing, Deborah Glick, Micah Kellner, Linda Rosenthal, Mark Weprin and Rory Lancman. As of the start of testimony, absent from the hearing was the Housing committee chair, and only two of the 27 members of his committee were present.

It’s unreasonable to insist that every member, even a majority of the members, attend today’s meeting. Members may have reasonable conflicts or great distances to travel, especially from upstate when the meeting is downstate. However, it’s uninspiring that about 15% of the total membership of the three committees were present especially considering the importance and topicality of the issue.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

...And Now A Word From Our Coalition Partner--Common Cause NY

Reform Day New York of Action 2008 is only 12 days away on Tuesday, April 29.

Join us and similar-minded friends in Albany as we meet with legislators to discuss much-needed state reforms on: rules, ethics, campaign finance and redistricting.

Transportation is leaving throughout the state. Go here to download bus information and here to register for Reform Day.

Hope to see you in Albany on April 29.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bloomberg Seeks to Terminate Legislative Control of Redistricting

Yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came out in support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s redistricting reform proposal, which would take intense partisan process out of the legislature and vest it in the hands of a commission comprised of Republicans, Democrats, and citizens affiliated with neither party. Bloomberg’s infusion of cash (250K) to the reform initiative was not merely a favor to his long-time friend, but also an expression of his hope that, “if [Schwarzenegger] can get that done there, maybe, just maybe, our Legislature here would do the same thing.”

Like the Mayor, the Brennan Center has fought for an independent commission in New York to wrestle control from legislators, who stand to manipulate district lines with narrow self-interest. Of course, independence is not our only concern. Any overhaul of the system must ensure that the commission is sufficiently large enough to reflect the racial, geographic, and partisan diversity of the state, while making every effort to construct a representative redistricting panel. California’s last attempt at redistricting reform fell flat after proposing that retired judges (a cohort overwhelmingly comprised of White men) should govern the line-drawing process; the larger, more diverse commission outlined in
Schwarzenegger’s most recent proposal is a welcome change.

In addition to diversity, there must be safeguards to prevent commissioners from acting as proxies for incumbents or party operatives. Rules that we like include barring ex parte contact between commissioners and party officials and restricting who may serve on the commission (no lobbyists, no current elected officials, etc). Insider dealing can also be thwarted by conducting all meetings publicly and allowing citizens to submit their own plans and air grievances with the committee.

Finally, any redistricting commission should have enough guidance to avoid mischief, but enough leeway to balance competing interests. Competition, which is typically the primary objective of reformers, is a worthy goal, but reasonable people may differ about how high of a priority it should be. Should it trump the ability of minority groups to elect candidates of choice (we think not)? Or ignore general compactness standards (maybe so)? Juggling these criteria is a difficult task; the same criteria that rein in partisan excess may also produce unintended and unfair results.

Bloomberg’s support of independent redistricting is heartening, and we hope that he continues his advocacy on his home turf. We also hope that California’s latest proposal avoids the fate of previous reform attempts, which blew up like so many things in so many Schwarzenegger movies.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Silver Talking Points Are Really Lead

In the wake of the failure of congestion pricing to go to the Assembly floor for debate or receive a vote (at least a public one), several Democratic legislators are singing a similar-sounding tune—the bad news is really good news.

In defense of the non-vote they point out that the practice of mulling things over in party conference has yielded many progressive victories by blocking consideration and (they claim) likely passage of a new capital punishment law or of choice issues like parental notification and consent

Without commenting on those specific issues, the problem with this explanation is that it’s a tacit admission that the Assembly speaker retains top-to-bottom control over the body.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Assembly Majority Denies Representation to 5.5 Million New Yorkers

Sometimes a mistake can illuminate more about a speaker's mindset than a flawless statement.

In yesterday's Politicker piece by Azi Paybarah, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky dismissed criticism of the Assembly's process for rejecting congestion pricing, arguing that, "[i]n this case, the issue was so important that the conference substituted for a committee meeting. It was a committee of the whole, as it were."

Students of government will pick up on the problem right away--a traditional "committee of the whole" functions as a forum for debate for the whole legislative body. By excluding minority members and the public from the conversation, the Assembly's treatment of congestion pricing was almost exactly the opposite of a committee of the whole. Since when is it a good idea to make the most important debates the most secret?

We don't mean to pick on one misstatement by one member of the Assembly. Many of Assemblyman Brodsky's colleagues share his apparent belief that the Democrats' supermajority status in the body means they can, for all intents and purposes, pretend the Republicans (and the general public, for that matter) don't exist. The minority is denied equal staff and resources, has almost no power in committees, and is left out of the "floor debate" that really matters--Democratic conference meetings.

It's just plain wrong to deny proper representation to the 5.5 million New Yorkers who live in Republican districts. We hope the congestion pricing crash-and-burn reminds voters of a problem we've been pushing to solve for years: the operating rules of the Assembly (and Senate) must be changed to foster robust, public debate among ALL legislators, not just those with the ear of the leadership.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Majority of the Majority Is Not a Majority of the Assembly

As my colleague Andrew has written, we at the Brennan Center were disappointed that the Assembly debate over congestion pricing seems to have taken place entirely within the closed Democratic conference, not in public on the Assembly floor. We're further disappointed to hear members of the Assembly majority defending their actions as democratic. For instance, Azi at the Politicker quotes a member of the Assembly as saying, "Democracy occurred with every member of the Assembly majority providing the speaker with his or her views, whether it was in conference or when the speaker polled members. And there was a clear consensus among the membership that the conference was against congestion pricing. Each legislator has the right and the ability to let his or her constituency know how he or she would have voted."

We would remind everyone that a consensus among the majority of the Assembly majority does not constitute a majority of the Assembly. We would also note that voters have the right to know their representatives' stance on key issues, regardless of whether legislators proactively use their "right and ability" to share their points of view. This is just one highly charged example of Assembly leadership protecting its members from accountability with their constituents.

OBITUARY: Congestion Pricing, Plan to Reduce Traffic and Emissions in Manhattan by Charging Entry Fees, Dead at 50 Weeks

Congestion pricing, an ambitious plan spearheaded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to charge vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street weekdays between the hours of 6am and 6pm an $8 fee, died in Monday in Albany, New York, two weeks shy of its first birthday. An investigation by government watchdog groups is underway as to the cause of death.

The initiative was born to great fanfare on Earth Day last year, April 22, 2007, at the Museum of Natural History during a speech by the mayor. Congestion Pricing was the cornerstone of Mayor Bloomberg’s "PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York," a wide-ranging set of 127 proposals to increase sustainability and reduce carbon emissions by 30% through the year 2030.

Despite $354 million in federal aid at stake, the approval of the New York City Council and endorsement of other elected officials and civic leaders, Congestion Pricing was never debated on the floor of the State Legislature in either house. Instead, it was widely reported that the Assembly held private meetings where at least one secret vote was taken to gauge support from the Democratic Conference. It’s unclear if that vote will be made public.

Congestion Pricing is survived by an arcane and less-than-fully democratic rules process in Albany.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Budget Reform? What Budget Reform?

Yesterday's Post Standard sums up what a lot of us are feeling about this year's budget process: "It's back to three men in a room."

The Secret Assembly Within The Public Assembly

Congestion Pricing is dead according to City Room, the New York Times blog that covers local topics. While we’ll reserve full comment until the actual deadline passes, the midnight hour upon which the plan turns into a pumpkin, Nicolas Confessore’s reporting had one interesting—and troubling—note.

Apparently, the members of the Assembly Democratic conference voted in secret against the plan. This comes after several reports of behind-closed-doors extended discussion of the proposal, most recently today’s New York Post, which wrote: “Assembly Democrats privately discussed the issue for seven hours over two days last week, with just 17 of the 71 who spoke favoring the idea and almost all agreeing that amendments were needed.”

The secrecy surrounding the debate of congestion pricing, as well as other major legislation, goes against the spirit of an open and democratic process. The public has a right to know how their elected representatives voted—in public or private. Are we to assume the aforementioned vote was held in secret to avoid that type of accountability?

Friday, April 04, 2008

To Debate or Not to Debate—That’s the Congestion Pricing Question

The answer, clearly is yes.

While I’m not arguing a position for or against the plan, the Assembly and Senate should debate the measure on the floor, millions would be affected by the plan and hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.

While it’s unclear whether that will ultimately happen, it’s been widely reported that there are ongoing discussions among the Assembly Democrats behind closed doors. According to Thursday’s Newsday: “Much of yesterday was consumed by hours of closed-door debate among the Assembly's Democratic majority over Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan.”

The appropriate venue to debate congestion pricing is out in the open, on the floor of the Assembly. Anything less is unacceptable. Far too long and far too often, almost universally, discussion in party conferences has replaced public debate. Like so many other issues, the public has the right to know where their representatives stand.

As the Brennan Center reported in Unfinished Business, the update of the landmark report on state legislative reform from two years earlier, less than one out of 20 major bills that are eventually passed into law are debated on the floor of the Assembly or Senate. In fact, floor debate is nearly non-existent and becoming more so.

Between 1997 and 2001, 95.5% of the major bills in the Assembly and 95.1% of the major bills in the Senate passed without any substantive debate on the floor. 81.8% of major bills passed the Assembly and 70.8% passed the Senate without any discussion whatsoever.

Remarkably, there was even less debate in 2005 after the new rules were passed. 96.8% of major laws passed by the Senate and 95.3% of major laws passed by the Assembly were not subject to any substantive floor debate. Similarly, 89.9% of the major laws passed in the Senate and 89.0% of major laws passed without any discussion on the floor at all.

While I think debating congestion pricing on the floor would be a victory no matter the outcome, unless we reverse the trend of substituting party conferences, which take place in private, for floor or committee debate open to the public, we will have won the battle but continue losing a major front in the rules war.

Monday, April 7th - Susan Lerner Speaks in Rochester on Clean Money

On Monday, Citizens for Better Government in New York will be hosting a talk on public financing by Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY. It will be part of the CBGNY meeting that will start at 6:45pm, with Susan's presentation set to begin at 7pm. The meeting will be held at the Henrietta Library at 455 Calkins Road (you can click on the map link below for driving directions). Click here for more details.

If you're in the Rochester area, check it out!

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Welcomed "Knapp" by the New York Attorney General

As much as we’d like to put the scandal of last month in the rearview mirror, we welcome the news that Governor Patterson granted the authority to Attorney General Cuomo to conduct an investigation.

The attorney general will probe how the State Police handled inquires about elected officials, most notably Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and possibly leaks against former Rep. John Sweeney during his reelection campaign. Given that Attorney General Cuomo has the necessary subpoena power to conduct the investigation, we hope and expect the truth will come out.

“Combining politics and police work is a toxic brew,” said the attorney general about the current investigation. The Knapp Commission hearings 35 years ago prove that point.