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).

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