Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More Ink for Reform

The Daily News has run two stories this week about Albany's dysfunction, both of which quote our own Larry Norden. Sunday's article gives a broad overview of the 'disgraceful' state of affairs, and an article running today focuses on the leadership stranglehold on the legislative process. The bottom line of both articles is simple: enough is enough - time to clean up in Albany.

Why Rules Still Matter

Yesterday, the day 3000 pages of budget bills hit state legislators’ desks in advance of a vote scheduled for only 48 hours later, the Times ran a story on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's unprecedented power in Albany. The story details Silver’s stranglehold on the legislative process in general, and the budget process in particular, attributing this year’s secret-even-for-Albany negotiations to Silver’s penchant for closed-door meetings and something hovering between oligarchy and autocracy. Readers of the article could be forgiven for thinking that we've never been further from meaningful reform in Albany, but we prefer to see the article as an illustration of why legislative rules are so important -- and why it may be darkest just before the dawn.

It will take more than one or two individuals to loosen the Speaker's 15-year grip on the legislative process; the legislature needs the weight of an entire chamber to act as a countervailing force. A robust committee process, regular and substantive legislative analysis, and rules that protect the voices of rank-and-file members can all help ensure that the locus of power in the legislature lies with the body of representatives elected by New York voters, and not with any one individual. With the recommendations of its Temporary Committee on Rules Reform due in just a week or two, the Senate may well become this essential counterbalance to unchecked power.

Now back to those budget bills. Speaker Silver has often touted the punctuality of his budgets, arguing that open budget negotiations might get in the way of meeting the state deadline. Looking around the country during budget season, it’s clear that this is a false tradeoff. Ohio, faced with the same number of weeks to consider its budget as New York, holds extensive budget hearings. Virginia, acting under similar time constraints, posts all budget documents, including early proposals, on a website where members of the public are welcome to comment. A total of nine states have budget deadlines similar to New York’s, but only New York shuts rank-and-file legislators and the general public so completely out of its budget process.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Cautionary Tale of MTA Math

Yesterday, the Times ran a story with the ignominious headline, “Math Appears Faulty in Senate MTA Plan.”

It does indeed.

The problem, as it turns out, is twofold: first, the plan added the cost of buses to be subsidized by the payroll tax to the MTA’s income, rather than removing the cost from the balance sheet; and second, the plan accounted for four quarters of payroll tax revenue in 2010, even though it will only have access to three quarters of tax revenue (fourth quarter payroll taxes are not available until the following year).

Both are easy enough mistakes to make, but this is exactly why the Senate rules require a fiscal note prepared by a Budget Division analyst to be attached to any bill before the bill is reported from committee. As we wrote in our most recent report, bill sponsors do not always submit fiscal notes when they should and the quality of the notes is highly variable.

We have yet to see the legislation that would enact the Senate Majority proposal, and when we do, the mathematical errors will in all likelihood be corrected. But given the March 25th deadline for the legislature to pass a rescue plan, it’s frightening to think about how close the Senate may have come to swiftly ushering a deeply flawed bill through the legislative process.

Rules - as they say - are there for a reason, and when the legislature is operating under a tight timeframe, the Senate’s own rules may prove more important than ever.