Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More Disclosure Please

Kelly Williams and I have an op-ed in today's Daily News arguing what should be pretty non-controversial at this point: that state legislators (even the lawyers!) should disclose the sources of their outside income.

Monday, December 21, 2009

About Those Committee Reforms

As my colleague Laura Seago noted last week, the only proposals for committee reform that we've seen coming from Senate Democrats have had to do with whether Republicans will be named to chair one of the dozens of committees and receive a few "lulus." Whatever happened to the promises to look into shrinking the ridiculously large number of committees, requiring members to show up to committee meetings in order to vote in those meetings, and developing a formal process for reading, amending and debating bills before rubber-stamping or blocking them? In other words, whatever happened to the promise to figure out a way to make committees work the way they do in nearly every other state legislative body in the United States, outside of New York? The Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform had indicated they would try to come up with some recommendations for the full Senate by December. It's December 21.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lulus distributed more equitably, but still not earned

Yesterday, the Daily News reported that the Senate Democrats are in “high level discussions” to give committee chairmanships to Republican members in hopes of improving relations between the two parties in the narrowly-divided chamber. Likely reflecting the nature of the talks themselves, the article emphasized the $12,500 lulus that GOP committee chairs will receive.

While bipartisan leadership is great, we certainly hope that this won’t be the only reform to the committee process that the Senate contemplates this month. When the chamber changed its rules in the wake of the coup last July, it also passed a resolution promising to return to the issue of committee reforms. Last month, Senate staff informed us that we could expect an outline of these reforms in December. In response to this news, we offered suggestions including reducing the number of committees, requiring committee reports, establishing a mark-up process, and institutionalizing conference committees to reconcile similar bills passed in both chambers. The promise to consider such changes has yet to be fulfilled.

Committee members of both parties need to earn their lulus by presiding over hearings, markups, and active discussion devoted to debating and improving legislation. If the Senate doesn’t go further to reform its committees, this new era of bipartisanship will mean little more than compensating members on both sides of the aisle for doing very little.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

3 Men in a Cell?

In 2005, we noted that over the previous decade, a New York State legislator was just as likely to die in office as lose in a general election. For 2009, on the heels of the Bruno conviction, we have a new statistic: since 2000, legislators were more likely to resign while under ethics investigation, or after pleading guilty to or being convicted of a crime, than they were to lose in a general election.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Closing the Bruno Gap

Yesterday, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was convicted of two felony charges of mail fraud under the federal honest services law. He is all but certain to appeal. If he wins on appeal, it will not be because Bruno did not accept millions of dollars in consulting fees from individuals with legislative interests without disclosing the payments (he admits that he did), but rather because the federal statute under which he was charged is currently under review.

Some have argued that the federal prosecution of Bruno underscores the failures of state ethics commissions to do their jobs. We're not sure that's fair. The sad fact is, it is not clear that there is any state statute under which to charge state politicians for the kinds of crimes Bruno was alleged (and now convicted) of committing. New York’s ethics laws, such as they are, don’t restrict outside earnings or require legislators to disclose the sources of their income. Those who collect outside income that might raise questions about conflicts of interest – including Shelly Silver, according to a witness at Bruno’s trial – can simply refuse to disclose that information. Even under the ethics bill nearly passed this fall, there would not necessarily be a case for convicting Bruno.

The question, then, shouldn’t be about the problem with Bruno’s actions – most would agree that it is undesirable for a legislative leader to accept over $3 million from individuals who wish to influence policy outcomes – but the problem with New York’s ethics laws. We need a new push for ethics reform that includes mandatory disclosure of all outside income (including from legal work, as is required in Washington state), pay to play restrictions (which would have explicitly banned Bruno’s activities), and a truly independent legislative ethics commission to oversee compliance with these laws.

We need these reforms soon, before the next Joe Bruno – and odds are good that there will be one – walks.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Albany Revealed

I'd like to echo yesterday's blog post from my colleague, Laura Seago. Disappointing as yesterday's gay marriage vote may have been, it represents a historic and extremely important moment in Albany separate and apart from substantive issue of marriage equality: Senators were forced to take a public, binding vote on an issue many would have preferred to avoid.

What's a bit surprising to me is how many people in Albany who should have known better were "shocked, shocked" to learn that the private promises of support they received did not translate into actual votes.

There's a long tradition in Albany of avoiding votes on controversial issues and bills, either because the bills are popular, but opposed by powerful interests with deep pockets, or because an up or down vote would inevitably tick off one group of consituents or another. This can be a good deal for legislators. They can privately or publicly support a measure that gets them the good will of particular constituents without having to fear the loss of financial or electoral support that would come with an actual vote. But the result is that, all too often, the legislature avoids tough issues that must be addressed for the State's long term health. The public has no one to blame (unless they happen to live in the district of the Assembly Speaker or Senate Majority Leader).

If a democratic system is going to thrive, legislators will sometimes have to take difficult votes -- it is a disservice to New Yorkers to avoid public debate and votes merely because taking a stand could cost some legislators their jobs. That's the point of democracy: take a difficult stand and then defend it to your consituents. Either a majority will accept your explanation or not. If not, new legislators will be elected to take up the will of the people.

Lo and behold, the day after this controversial vote on gay marriage, people know where their state Senators really stand. There are protests, and talk of targeting members for their votes. Come November, voters will have an opportunity to judge their legislators on this topic in a way that they could not previously.

Wouldn't it be great for voters to have more points of reference? Actual votes on bills on controversial but important issues like campaign finance reform, congestion pricing, property tax reform, etc., etc.?

We can dream, and the new Senate rules may provide a real opportunity for this next year (in one chamber, anyway).

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Victory in Defeat?

Today, in an incredibly rare move, the Senate voted down a bill – this one to legalize same-sex marriage.

Disappointing though the result might be, the bill’s failure symbolized a departure from business as usual in the Senate, and gave advocates for marriage equality a critical tool in pushing similar legislation next year.

During debate on the bill, Sen. Diaz, one of the eight democrats who voted against the legislation, called Majority Leader Malcolm Smith “treasonous” for not keeping his word with respect to a deal reached last January that included Smith’s promise to keep the marriage bill from coming to the floor for a vote in exchange for Diaz’s participation in the Democratic caucus. Normally, a bill only reaches the floor with the approval of chamber leadership and a guarantee of passage.

But today, for the first time, the Senate created a public record as to where its members stand on the issue of marriage. While some Senators were outspoken in their support for or opposition to the bill, it was never 100% clear until today who the five or six democratic holdouts were, and the fact that the bill lost by the margin it did was a surprise to most who have been following this issue closely.

Openness and accountability are critically important to representative government. In the past, leadership has shielded members from having to take votes on controversial issues and the result has been that voters haven't known who to blame for a bill's failure to pass. That's bad for New York, because it keeps the legislature from tackling difficult issues, and it's bad for New Yorkers, because they lose the ability to hold their members accountable.

One thing we are pretty sure of is that many, many New Yorkers will know how their Senators voted on gay marriage when they go to the polls next November. That's the kind of significant information they haven't had in the past. The majority of New Yorkers who support same-sex marriage and those who oppose it will now have a better opportunity to make sure that their views are reflected in the votes of their elected representatives.

UPDATE: In a previous version of this post, we indicated that the Senate has voted down a bill on only one other occasion in recent memory. We were incorrect. During two of the Senate's post-coup all-nighters, a total of three bills were voted down on the floor. An additional two bills were tabled due to a lack of support on the floor, again after the coup. We stand corrected.