Monday, June 30, 2008

Top Critics on Albany Session: Not Fresh

With the close of legislative session in Albany, the reviews from critics are in. If Rotten Tomatoes collected the results like it does for movies reviews, the results would be not fresh.

Here's a smattering of the coverage from a few "Top Critics":

Danny Hakim covers session for the Times, and what was left undone, which was preceded by an editorial about the change of majority leader in the Senate that noted the lack of reform. Yesterday, Nicolas Confessore capped things off about the a piece about not expecting the unexpected in Albany.

Rick Karlin of the Times Union was more evenhanded and notes the unforeseen adversity in Albany. Good government groups were less apologetic.

Newsday's Liz Moore points out the work left undone.

Finally, Tom Precious of the Buffalo News offers up a straightforward appraisal with what did and didn't happen.

We're on the edge of our seats in anticipation of the sequel expected next year.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pays to Have Friends Like Bruno and Skelos

While discussion swirls about what how new Majority Leader Dean Skelos will function in Albany, one thing is unlikely to change: the flow of money between campaign accounts to fellow senators and nearly unlimited transfers to the state party.
As the New York Post reported today, Skelos has a $1.2 million war chest--funded by special interests--for an uncontested election. Like Bruno, whose re-election account balance stood at $1.6 million as of January, Skelos has been almost as generous in doling out campaign cash.

From 2004 to the present, Bruno gave nearly $200,000 to fellow senators (often the maximum $8,500 for the general election, though it's unclear if all faced challengers) and more than $500,000 to the state Republican party, $400,000 of which moved in 2006. Skelos gave nearly $150,000 to senate colleagues and funneled $475,000 to the state party over the same period.

What a Difference Change of Leadership Means--On the Last Day of Session

The last act of state Senator Joe Bruno, now former Majority Leader, was foiled by--imagine this--procedural rules wielded wisely by a member of his own party.

According to an account by Newsday's Elizabeth Moore, Bruno introduced a measure to exempt dentists from certain rules affecting office surgery. The bill was brought to the floor via the Rules Committee, which Bruno, like the speaker of the Assembly, chairs and not the Health Committee. Senator Kemp Hannon, the chair of the relevant committee and fellow Republican, complained about seeing the bill only 30 minutes earlier.

Then, according to Moore's account: "After Bruno ignored his request to lay the bill aside, Hannon demanded a slow roll call, a maneuver more typical of the minority party. When Democrats joined him, Bruno stopped the vote and called an end to the session."

In the vein of New York Post gossip doyenne Cindy Adams: Only in New York, kids, very rarely in New York, kids.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Times to Albany: Reform New York!

Today's Times reacts to the Bruno-Skelos news with a sharp editorial about the (poor) state of reform in Albany under the headline, "The More Things Change in Albany." Quoting from the piece:

"Here is just a short list of what needs to be fixed: a scandalous campaign finance system, a culture of back-room secrecy that serves lobbyists rather than the voters and a system for drawing political districts that comes straight out of Tammany Hall. Voters should demand concrete reforms from their state representatives, many of whom are going home this week to campaign for re-election."

No Empty Seat Voting (This Time)

It's official, last night state Senator Dean Skelos was elected Majority Leader by a vote of 32 to 30. (Presumably all the seats were filled.) The 30 votes were for Malcolm Smith, who remained the Senate's Minority Leader.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bruno Out; Skelos In?

After 14 years of leading the state Senate, Majority Leader Joe Bruno announced yesterday that he wont' seek reelection in November. The baton will most likely be handed to Senator Dean Skelos of Long Island, also the Deputy Majority Leader (as of June 24 at 1:30 p.m.)

(It's worth noting that Skelos has a Long Island park named for him, like many of his colleagues. Though it's hardly, "The Joe," the $14 million, 4,500-seat stadium named for the present majority leader.)

This news doesn't comes as a complete surprise -- there were signs pointing toward retirement at least two years ago when Danny Hakim of the Times wrote, "one can envision a time in the not-so-distant future when Mr. Skelos, now 58, will be the state's top Republican," under the headline, "Long Island Senator May Be G.O.P. Leader in Waiting."

In February Hakim also pointed out the ranks of sexagenarian members of the GOP Senate: 15 of the 32 members will be at least 65 by November. Senator Bruno, 79, like seven of his GOP colleagues, is at least 75 years of age.

Speculation about Bruno's retirement spiked last month when the he didn't say outright that he was running again in an interview with Marc Humbert for the NYS School Boards Association's newspaper. However, soon after Liz Benjamin of the Daily News reported that Bruno was distributing petitions to volunteers to get on the ballot. (We'll save the discussion about the state's byzantine ballot access rules for another occasion.)

At present, it's unclear at present if Bruno will actually serve out his remaining term. Even if he were to resign immediately, leaving the GOP with a 31-30 advantage, it might not make a difference given that session is already at an end. On the other hand, Governor Paterson is likely to call a special session later this year to wield to budget-cutting ax, among other issues.

What does the Bruno's decision mean for balance of the Senate, which currently stands at 32 Republicans and 30 Democrats, come November? Fred Dicker of the Post writes today: "[it] will create chaos in Republican ranks and unsettle Democratic Gov. Paterson."

Monday, June 23, 2008

Assembly Passes Public Campaign Finance Bill

Last week, with two days left in session the Assembly passed the 2010 Campaign Finance Reform Act, a system of voluntary public financing of statewide and legislative elections through a matching system.

What do we make of the late-breaking development? To some extent, any news on campaign finance reform, especially public financing, is good news. However, we're concerned about both the bill's substance and the process.

The bill creates a system of matching funds--$250 would be matched by the state at a rate of $4 for every $1 raised for state residents--similar to New York City. The Brennan Center's Ciara Torres-Spelliscy and Laura MacCleery outlined their issues with the bill in this document (opens as a PDF). Apart from questions about the public financing system, we have myriad concerns, including the absurdly high individual contribution limits and loopholes that allow for parties to set up housekeeping accounts that allow for unlimited contributions.

The Brennan Center has typically frowned upon the end-of-session glut of bill passing, as pointed out in
our reports on Albany's broken legislative rules. Moreover, there hasn't been so much as a hearing on the bill. We hope this is meant as a good faith starting point for public education and discussion of the severe need for campaign finance reform and public financing.

In that case, Governor Paterson's program bill, which fixes many of the problems with the current system--high limits, loopholes, pay-to-play and enforcement--and the Assembly's public financing bill are a good place to start talking before the beginning of next session. In fact, my colleagues and I will be in the first row.

Prediction: No Vote on Bigger Bottle Bill

It doesn't take a psychic to know this much: controversial votes just don't take place in Albany. So here's a prediction. The "Bigger, Better, Bottle Bill" -- pushed by environmentalists for years -- won't come to a vote in the Senate before they wrap up business for the session this week.

The bill would extend New York's 5-cent container deposit law to plastic bottles holding water, iced tea and other beverages. Many environmentalists believe the bill will dramatically reduce the number of plastic bottles that end up in our landfills, rivers and parks -- and instead will be recycled. A recent survey indicates that 70% of New Yorkers support the bill.

The Senate has refused to vote on this bill for years. Would it pass if it came to a vote? Who knows? Given public support for the bill, it would be very hard for some Senators to vote against it -- but that's the beauty of controlling a legislative chamber in Albany. It's almost never necessary to cast a difficult vote.

There may be very good reasons for opposing this bill, but we won't get to hear those reasons this week, let alone a debate or a vote on the bill in the Senate. Someone important apparently opposes it, and that's enough to ensure no discussion, no debate and no vote.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Opening the State Books

Yesterday, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli announced Open Book New York, a searchable database of state agency spending, including the past 10 years of active contracts.

We're always fans of increased transparency, and the effort's press release includes the usual list of laudatory quotes from the legislative leaders. What's curious is both Senate Majority Leader Bruno and Assembly Speaker Silver (quote below) claim to similar fans of transparency. If that's the case then why don't they make records of their houses, including all attendance and votes public via a similar website?

Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno said: “I applaud Comptroller DiNapoli for this initiative to bring taxpayers more information and increase government accountability. This new Web site mirrors a Senate Majority bill, passed last week, that would have established a similar site to provide taxpayers with more information on government spending and performance. With millions of middle class families tightening their belts to overcome tough economic times, taxpayers have every right to demand that their government operates as openly and efficiently as possible.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said: “The Assembly has long supported measures to increase government transparency and accountability. Open Book NY will do just that by giving the public easy internet-based access to information regarding state spending and contacts, and I commend Comptroller Tom DiNapoli for launching this important initiative.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

Keep Campaign Finance Reform and Public Financing on the Summer Agenda

Check out this op-ed in the Times Union by my colleagues Andrew Stengel and Laura MacCleery. They argue that Governor Paterson's recent campaign finance reform proposal, a big improvement over last year's defunct deal, is a "mighty big first stride" on the road to public financing. They urge lawmakers to use the summer for a robust conversation within the Legislature and with the public.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hot Off the Ethics Press

This week the Commission on Public Integrity released the debut issue of their newsletter, The Integrity Report. The cover story notes that lobbyist spending rose $20 million last year over 2006, an increase of about 7.5% There's also a note about investigations of two lobbyists. In sum, the newsletter is good reading.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Albany Wire

Is it a sprint? A run, jog or brisk walk toward the end of the legislative session?

With two weeks left--a total of eight session days remaining--there's much ado about the unfinished business of the legislature, in particular Governor Paterson's program bills.

In today's New York Post, "Inside Albany" columnist Fred Dicker reports that tension between the staffs of the governor and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver is focused on the call for reduced spending and a property tax cap.

Meanwhile the Times' Danny Hakim does some number crunching in today's Empire Zone. Of the governor's 18 program bills, five passed, including three budget bills and two were the result of negotiations with public-sector unions. Of the 13 remaining bills, seven haven't even been introduced in either chamber.

It should be noted that it's an extraordinary year given that Governor Paterson was sworn in 12 weeks ago and his first three weeks were consumed with the budget.

As the Brennan Center reported in the 2006 New York State Legislative Report Update an unusually high proportion of bills are passed in the end-of-session logjam. According to the report: "In 2005, 36% of major bills were passed in in the Senate and 40.4% were passed in the Assembly during these last possible days." That doesn't seem likely to change this year.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Tell Us More

More information please! There are many ways for New Yorkers to judge how well our elections are working, and where we might improve: we can look at the rate of citizens of voting age that are registered, the percentage of registered voters who vote, and how many of those votes are counted. But for basic things, like how well machines work and how well polling places are staffed, much of the information we get is anecdotal: long lines at polling stations, tales of confused poll workers or machines that have broken down.

One of the best ways to analyze election performance is to review comprehensive data provided by local boards of election in their "annual reports." These reports are legally mandated, but not every board has done a good job of getting them out.

Case in point: the New York City Board of Elections. To their credit, and the credit of their new Executive Director Marcus Cedarqvist, we recently received their Annual Report for 2006. Unfortunately, this report did not have all the information we would have liked to see.

This week, the Women's City Club of New York, the Brennan Center and several other good government groups sent a letter to the New York City Board asking it to start providing more information to the public -- things like the number of poll workers assigned in each election, the number of those who attended city poll worker trainings, the number and type of interpreters by language deployed on Election Day, the number of machine failures, and the number and category of calls to the city board's help line.

This isn't sexy stuff, but it represents one of the best ways for the public to get a sense of how our elections are being run, and where we might want to see changes.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Speechless (Almost)

Governor Paterson just announced a campaign finance reform proposal, press release here. From the release (and absent the actual bill draft) it sounds, well, pretty darn good in many areas: lowering limits, closing loopholes, eliminating unlimited transfers and increasing disclosure.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Skiming the Shelly Surface

This week, New York magazine features a profile of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver under the title "The Obstructionist." The piece only skims the surface of the troubles in Albany.

The story touches on the congestion pricing debacle and notes that Silver was both for and against the plan:

Silver’s handling of congestion pricing was the latest example of his secretive way of wielding power. He has a remarkable ability to seem to hold two contradictory positions at the same time. Officially, he was in favor of it, because, he says, it would help his district, where we’re currently stuck in traffic. But philosophically, he was against it.

The problem is that since there was never public debate or even a vote, we'll never know how Shelly--or his Assembly colleagues--would have voted.

The story also mention Silver's law firm job:

Silver also has a side gig working for Weitz & Luxenberg, one of the biggest personal-injury firms in the state. Silver’s role there is so controversial that judges (they’ve been barking for pay raises) are refusing to hear cases from lawyers at the firm (one recently called him a “slug” because he’s been trying to tie judicial raises to raises for his legislators—Silver’s their union leader, after all). Silver won’t disclose how much he makes for the firm because state ethics laws are so weak they don’t require him to make them public. He also isn’t interested in overhauling these ethics requirements; that wouldn’t be too popular among his members. “I don’t represent corporations,” he says. “I don’t represent anybody who in any way has an impact on anything we do legislatively. They are individuals who, through some unfortunate circumstance, are injured …”

The legislature doesn't require its members to disclose outside income. But, if Shelly has nothing to fear by releasing his client list, then why not do so and act as an example for his members?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Where, Oh Where to Fund Public Campaign Financing?

Our colleague Beth Foster makes a convincing argument in today's Newsday that if Governor Paterson is looking for sources of funding for public campaign financing--he's questioned where the money would come from--then he might try unfairly bloated state employee pensions.

Here's part of her op-ed:

Similarly disturbing is news that hundreds of state employees may have gamed the system to receive much bigger pension checks than they should have been entitled to - and that state officials have not yet moved to examine pension formulas.

Topping this list of retirees is George M. Philip, who receives a pension of more than $260,000 each year. And that's on top of his $280,000 salary as the interim president of the University of Albany and his $100,000 consulting gig with the New York State Teachers Retirement System.

Also bringing home six-figure pension checks are a whopping 898 other retirees, more than half of whom were employed by Nassau and Suffolk Counties and the Port Authority, according to data obtained from the State and Local Retirement System by the Times Union.

It's suspected that many of these workers feathered their retirement nests during their last years of employment by working unusually long overtime hours and saving up vacation days, all of which would considerably increase the "average" income figure used to calculate pension benefits.