Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kelly Williams: Do New Yorkers deserve better government, or really good government?

Governor David Patterson’s proposal to dismantle the Commission on Public Integrity and replace it with a smaller panel structured in a way to minimize political influence, with jurisdiction over legislators and expanded powers, would fill some of the voids in ethics oversight in New York State government, but more would be accomplished if Albany chose to open this process to scrutiny and debate.

In January 2007, newly-elected Governor Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders announced the first major overhaul of New York State’s ethics laws in 20 years. Crafted behind closed doors, in typical fashion the package passed two months later without a hearing or discussion of possible alternatives and improvements. It was a lost opportunity: the reforms left in place New York State’s lax financial disclosure and campaign finance laws, and as we now know, created an oversight entity vulnerable to charges of undue influence from the executive. Also, legislators refused to cede oversight of their activities to an independent entity. The National Conference of State Legislators reports that thirty-three states have independent ethics commissions with broad enforcement powers over state legislators. New York is one of just a handful of states with separate, self-policing legislative bodies.

Should ethics reform be a business-as-usual behind-closed-doors kind of thing? Like spring flowers, reforms aimed at corruption and undue influence have been happening all around us: though far from perfect, legislators in Connecticut, North Carolina, Alaska, Illinois and several other states have passed various reforms that merit scrutiny and comparison, a buffet of alternatives for New York State. An open discussion (and vote?) would air alternatives and might result in innovative change based on tested systems.

Kelly Williams serves as Counsel in the Brennan Center's Finance and Operations Department.

Markup Video Now Online

The video of last week's Cities Committee markup session is now online on the committee website.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Look at the Minority Report on Rules Reform

Yesterday, three Republican members of the Senate’s Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform released a minority report detailing areas where they felt that the committee fell short.

Unsurprisingly, the emphasis of the report is on equal allocation of resources, a familiar refrain for Republican Senators once they became the minority party.

While we would have liked to see more passion for other aspects of reform, the committee did rightly point out a few important areas where there is more work to be done, including developing a process to force a floor vote on a bill, developing rules for committee amendments, and allowing committee chairs or bill sponsors to convene conference committees.

While none of these ideas went completely unaddressed in the Temporary Committee’s main report, it’s good to see more senators going on the record as being committed to making sure that these reforms are accomplished in the next few months.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Committee Markup Recap

This morning, the Cities Committee used a markup process based on Brennan Center recommendations to consider, debate, and revise a Tenant’s Rights bill sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger.

The meeting, which was broadcast live online, featured amendments (and amendments to amendments) to the bill, debate about specific language and the best ways to address related issues, and clarification questions that helped to define areas where future research is necessary.

Senator Krueger says that the markup improved her bill, and describes the process the committee used as an “excellent model.”

We’re thrilled to see committees doing the substantive work that they are intended to do, and we applaud the Cities Committee and its chair, Senator Daniel Squadron, for showing the public and their peers how it’s done.

Now, the onus is on other Senators to follow Senator Squadron’s and Senator Krueger’s lead.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Committee Markup Test Drive

Tomorrow at 9:30, the Cities Committee, chaired by Sen. Squadron (who also sits on the Temporary Committee for Rules and Administration Reform) will experiment with a bill markup and amendment process based on rules suggested by the Brennan Center. The meeting should be broadcast online – we’ll be watching, and we’ll bring you the full report tomorrow.

This should be an opportunity to see substantive committee work on a bill, and we hope that others will follow the Cities committee's lead in working toward a committee structure that allows legislators to take an active role in shaping and improving the legislation under their consideration.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Public Markup before Committee Markup?

Last week, the Senate unveiled a new website that Majority Leader Malcolm Smith promises will help “put the Senate into the hands of the people.”

The site includes lots of new features like links to members’ Twitter feeds and an “Open Data” page that includes budget and appropriations information, but we were particularly drawn to a section of the new site called “NYSenate Markup.”

Given our concern about the Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform’s failure to recommend a robust committee markup or amendment process in its recent report, we were intrigued by such a prominent reference to markup on the Senate site.

The online markup feature allows an opportunity for public comments on legislation, a worthwhile goal that has been stymied in the past by secret deliberations on legislation and a lack of committee hearings. But a piece of the puzzle is still missing.

When one visits the federally-focused website on which the feature is based, the first thing you see is a prominent definition of ‘markup:’ “The process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation.” Allowing the public to take a crack at this process is a great idea, but the more basic principle that committees should substantively work on legislation has yet to be affirmed in New York.

We're thrilled that the Senate is thinking big, but big ideas may never become a reality if the chamber's rules don't provide lawmakers with the tools they need to incorporate public input and their own expertise into the legislation under their consideration.