Monday, March 22, 2010

Member Item Distribution Still "Grotesquely Unfair"

Today, our friends at NYPIRG released their analysis of the legislature’s member items for the current fiscal year.

The bottom line is that the funds are still distributed inequitably. In the Assembly, a whopping 81 percent of districts receive less than the average disbursement, which means that a small number of members – usually those in or close to the leadership - receive a disproportionately large amount of the funds. In the Senate, fewer than one third of the chamber’s members control more than 75 percent of member item funds.

While many member items fund good causes in members’ home districts, they can also be a tool for chamber leadership to retain control over members and another pot of money into which corrupt legislators can dip – as was the case with Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, who collected $95,000 from a little league that was included in his member item distribution.

Reform advocates (including NYPIRG and the Brennan Center) support a measure that would entitle members to the same amount of member item funding and place tighter controls on conflicts of interest.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Correction: A Different Reading of Senate Rule VII § 3(e)

Andrew Stengel, Senior Adviser for Government Reform for the Senate Democrats and loyal reader of our blog, contacted us today to give us a different interpretation of Senate Rule VII § 3(e) than we provided in a blog post last week in connection with the Farmworkers Rights Bill.

The full rule is below:

No motion for committee consideration shall be in order after the first Monday in May. The sponsor of any bill may file, through the Journal clerk, a motion for committee consideration forty-five days after the bill has been referred to such committee. Once a motion for committee consideration is filed, the chair of the committee shall place the bill on a committee agenda and schedule a vote within forty-five days. In the case of a bill that is referred to a standing committee having secondary reference, the bill shall be considered within the next two committee meetings [emphasis added].

We interpreted the last clause of this rule to mean that in the case of bills referred to a committee of secondary reference, as the farmworkers bill was, the committee must consider the bill within two meetings once a motion for committee consideration has been filed.

Andrew tells us that the Senate has a different interpretation. He says that this clause only applies to bills that passed out of the committee of first reference with a motion for committee consideration - so the sponsor does not have to wait to file a second motion for committee consideration or wait 45 days for that motion to be honored once it hits the second committee. If the motion for committee consideration is filed for the first time once a bill is in a committee of secondary reference, the chair still has 45 days to consider the bill. Going forward, this reading will be extremely be useful to those attempting to understand how the rules work and how best to decrease the likelihood that leadership can use committee referral to kill a bill.

This seems to be good news in the sense that leadership should have less power to silently kill a bill by referring it to a new committee and having the clock for a vote start all over again, but it's less clear how helpful it will be for proponents of the bill currently in question. Because the motion for committee consideration on the farmworkers bill wasn't filed until the bill was already in the committee of secondary reference, it may have to wait a full 45 days for consideration, rather than two meetings as we and the bill's supporters originally thought.

The main lesson for sponsors of bills (and their supporters) seems to be that if you want to get your bill to the floor quickly, make sure you file a motion for committee consideration as soon as possible.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

New Senate Rules in Action

Just a quick update on the farmworker’s rights bill battle that we blogged about last week:

On Monday, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Onorato, filed a motion for committee consideration, a new procedure that was enacted as a part of the Senate’s post-coup rules reform.

Now, according to Senate Rule VII § 3(e), the bill must receive consideration within the next two committee meetings. The Agriculture Committee’s normal meeting time is 9:30 on Tuesday mornings, but the committee does not appear to have posted a meeting agenda for today on the Senate’s website, so it seems unlikely that the two-meeting timeline will directly translate to two weeks.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

In Frustration, An Opportunity to Realize Reform

The long-anticipated Farmworkers Rights Bill appears to be waylaid after Senator Darrel Aubertine requested that the bill receive secondary reference to the Agriculture Committee, which he chairs. While the committee held a hearing on the bill on Monday, the bill did not appear on the committee’s agenda this week, and advocates fear that Aubertine is deliberately stalling on the bill.

The good news for the bill’s proponents, however, is that the new Senate rules allow them some options. Forty-five days after a bill has been referred to a committee (by my count, today is day 41) the sponsor may file a “motion for committee consideration” that compels a vote on the bill within two committee meetings (this short timeline is required under the rules for bills on second referral; if Agriculture were the committee of first referral, the chair would have 45 days to comply with the request).

If a committee fails to act on a bill within 45 days, the sponsor is also able to file a petition requesting that a bill be moved directly to the third reading calendar, circumventing a committee vote altogether. This motion, called a “petition for consideration,” will be honored if three fifths of the chamber’s members sign on.

As we’ve written before, the Senate’s improved rules mean nothing unless members take advantage of them. We don’t take a position on the farmworkers rights bill, but we do encourage frustrated advocates on all sides of the political spectrum to take advantage of these hard-fought new rules and hold Senate leadership accountable for their promises of reform.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

State Police Redux, Redux

The “why” of the Paterson administration’s possible improper use of State Police remains a real head-scratcher, particularly on the heels of what seemed, so recently, to be an impressionable event –- Spitzer’s resignation on the heels of an investigation for improperly using the State Police.

One clear thing is that, if the governor had a hands-on role in the misuse of state police in this matter or in covering it up, it is an impeachable offense. Just take a look at the articles of impeachment filed against President Nixon before he fled office. But even if the Governor did not have any direct involvement in this matter or make any attempt to cover it up, it is up to him, as it was with Spitzer, to make certain that no member of his staff thinks that the state police are there to serve any of their political or personal needs. For that failure he is already paying a political price.

On Monday, news outlets reported that several pieces of legislation have been introduced to address this issue. One proposal that seems unnecessary (and is probably just political) creates a special commission “to investigate systemic misconduct, abuse of power and political interference” relating to the state police. The legislature has the power to conduct such an inquiry itself, and it should. Such oversight is their constitutional right and duty. And the improper use of state police by two successive governors should certainly signal that something is wrong.

In 1975 the Assembly conducted just such an investigation. Reports that the state police had collected “non criminal” (their words) files on hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and others over many years resulted in the creation of a Task Force under the Government Operations Committee. In 1977 it issued its report. Among the Task Force’s most important findings was that police indiscretions largely resulted from “a lack of clear guidance from the Governor and the Legislature on what were proper intelligence activities.” One of its key recommendations was for “Legislation to provide for oversight and greater accountability is needed.” Another recommendation was ongoing oversight of the police.

Of course, no one followed any of them.

Full Disclosure: Eric Lane was co-counsel to the Task Force referred to in this posting. His article on this experience can be found here.

Monday, March 01, 2010

With the Governor's Role in Dispute, It's Time to Look Critically at '3 Men in a Room'

The heated debate surrounding Governor Paterson’s political future has spawned a subsidiary discussion about his role in the upcoming budget negotiations.

The budget, which is due April 1st, is typically negotiated between the Assembly Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Governor and behind closed doors. In light of last week’s events, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver suggested that Lieutenant Governor Ravitch should participate in these budget talks. Based on reporting in the Daily News, Senator Eric Adams took this to be a suggestion that Governor Paterson shouldn't have a role in the talks (Silver disputes this is what he meant). The Senator called such a suggestion offensive.

In years past, the results of budget negotiations have come to light at the last minute, and rank-and-file members received thousands of pages of budget bills only days before the deadline and the scheduled vote, giving them little time to read the bills and no opportunity to suggest substantive changes. Last year’s budget process was, by many accounts, the most secretive in decades.

So here’s a different idea: rather than bickering about who should participate in the closed-door budget talks, why not do away with them altogether? Why not debate and revise the budget in the open forum of the legislative chambers and then reconcile the differences in open conference committees as required by the Budget Reform Act of 2007? The Senate is already taking steps to open up the budget process, but all parties could go further to provide the public with access to the conversations that ultimately determine the state’s fiscal future.