Friday, August 21, 2009

Lt. Governor Question Still Merits Court Consideration

Yesterday, an appellate panel ruled that Governor Paterson’s appointment of Richard Ravitch to the office of lieutenant governor violated state law. At the conclusion of the decision, the panel stated that “this matter is one of great public import and ought to be resolved finally and expeditiously by the Court of Appeals.”

In a statement responding to the ruling, Dean Skelos said that if the governor appealed the decision to the court, he would certainly receive the same verdict – a statement that Capitol Confidential interpreted to mean that such an appeal would be futile.

But how should we define futility? Whether or not the Court of Appeals would rule the same way as the panel, a decisive ruling from the court would still have value. As we’ve written before, a ruling on the case would provide valuable precedent in the event that a court is asked to rule on a similar appointment in the future. The panel that ruled yesterday would seem to agree.

For his part, Paterson seems to be confused about the law. A story about the ruling in today’s New York Times reports that Paterson is toying with the idea of having the legislature vote to confirm Ravitch to the post. This brings section 41 of the Public Officers Law, pertaining to vacancies to be filled by the legislature, into the fray. Unfortunately for Paterson, though, section 41 explicitly states that the legislature may only vote to fill a vacancy in the office of comptroller or attorney general.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Voters Get It and the Times Confirms It: New York Has a Long Way to Go

In response to a Qunnipiac poll showing that nearly 80 percent of New Yorkers think that the state government is broken, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver expressed sympathy for voters’ sentiments toward the Senate and dodged any blame for his own chamber.

It would be an audacious move for a man with a 28% approval rating on any day, but it’s particularly interesting that Silver would choose to slam the Senate today, when the New York Times reports that several members of the state legislature – mostly in the Assembly – collect pensions on top of their salaries by retiring for a single day at the end of their terms before a new term, and a new salary, begins.

Loopholes in the law exempt lawmakers elected before 1995 and those who switch chambers from restrictions on collecting pensions while working, and elected officials are not required to get waivers required of other state employees to draw on pensions while earning more than $30,000 a year. A bill introduced last year to close the loophole languished in committee.

Even pension reforms that seem like easy political sells aren’t doing so well. A bill by Assemblyman Bob Reilly and Senator Liz Krueger denying pensions to public officials convicted of crimes (an issue near and dear to many recent members of the legislature) can’t get past committees in either chamber.

The Senate sideshow showed how spectacularly bad things can get, but it’s important to remember that it was a symptom of a much more widespread disease. The good news, as demonstrated by the Quinnipiac poll, is that voters recognize that we have a problem – even if Silver doesn’t.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Reconciling Differences on Mayoral Control

This Thursday, The Senate will reconvene to vote on its version of the New York City school governance (‘mayoral control’) bill. By all accounts, the Senate bill, which was the subject of intensive negotiations within the Democratic conference and between the Senate and Mayor Bloomberg, looks significantly different from the version passed by the Assembly in June.

The Senate version is slated to pass with a chapter amendment that would require the establishment of a parent training center, an arts advisory committee, public meetings on school safety, and quality of curriculum and instruction as a component of the principal review process, none of which are included in the Assembly version.

In most state legislatures, the two chambers would convene an open meeting of a conference committee comprised of members from both chambers to reconcile the differences between the two bills. In New York, differences are usually worked out in closed-door meetings that often cut legislators out of the process. If rank-and-file members want to open the discussion, they’re usually out of luck – the current rules of the New York legislature vest the Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader with sole authority to convene a conference committee.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has expressed reluctance to use this option, instead stating that he will bring the issue up with his conference when the Assembly reconvenes in September. Last week, Silver said the Senate can probably rely on Mayor Bloomberg’s promises to implement the reforms contained in the amendment regardless of whether they become law, stating that the changes in the chapter amendment "can be done by the City of New York Board of Education without any legislation, anyway."

If the Mayor’s verbal commitment is not sufficient for some in the Senate – and I suspect it won’t be, given how contentious the issue has been – there is little that rank-and-file members can do. But there’s a better way. Both chambers should amend their joint rules to allow bill sponsors or the chairs of the committees of a bill’s original jurisdiction to call a conference committee. Open and robust debate with the aim of crafting the best possible legislation should not end until a bill is signed into law.