Even to the average New Yorker, the controversies and scandals in Albany seem never ending. The most recent, of course, has to do with the Governor and potentially abusing the power of his office to intervene in a domestic issue. But there are other glowing examples from former Governor Spitzer to ousted Senator Hiram Monserrate and many others. The negative publicity the State Legislature has received over the last few months and years is often well-deserved. But why does New York tend to stand head and shoulders above other states when it comes to scandal and dysfunction? The answer is easy. All too often our government is a closed, autocratic institution, where rank and file legislators and the public are shut out of the process of making laws.
Does anyone remember the Saturday morning cartoon called School House Rock? You remember the jingle… “I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capital Hill…” It explained that a bill is drafted and then referred to a committee. Committee members debate, receive public input, consider amendments and if the bill receives enough votes to pass the committee, it goes to the full chamber for all members to consider. The cartoon pointed out that democracy is founded upon elected representatives openly introducing, debating, and amending legislation, and seriously considering input from the public and experts.
Image Credit: The Examiner
The problem is that here in New York, that rarely happens. Hearings devoted to specific bills, where concerned citizens and experts can offer their input, are almost never held. Bills are rarely debated and amended in committee or on the floor of the legislature, and just because a bill is popular with the voters and rank-and-file members does not mean it will be considered. If legislative leaders or the special interests that fund them oppose a bill, it probably won’t see the light of day. This is neither representative nor democratic. For too long in Albany, leaders of each chamber controlled nearly everything, while rank and file members were often kept from publicly debating, amending and influencing key legislation. Issues such as job creation, the state budget and health care spending have been completely determined by legislators elected from one or two areas of the state.
But some change may finally be coming to Albany from some surprising quarters – the very State Senate that has been marred by so much controversy this past year. Most New Yorkers followed the circus-like atmosphere in the State Senate this summer when power struggles between the two parties paralyzed the chamber. We said all along that while it was embarrassing, the “coup” stopped many bad bills from passing. But it also resulted in some good reforms getting passed that will help improve the process and strengthen out voice.
While the Assembly remains as cloudy and undemocratic as ever, the Senate now has rules that could make it more typical of state legislatures across the country. Obviously the Senate can do more, but what has been done represents a significant step. Reforming the committee process is the next step. Committees are where the real work on legislation occurs. Committees should publicly review, debate and amend legislation, but this still is not the case in New York. No process exists for requiring hearings on bills so that the public and experts may comment on proposed legislation. Even if the full chamber won’t change the rules, individual members can take the initiative.
Last year, Senator Squadron, who represents parts of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, had a public “mark-up” of a bill, where committee members debated specific provisions of a bill and then introduced amendments. And this year, Senator Aubertine actually took a bill that had passed in the Labor Committee and brought it into his Agriculture Committee so that he can hold public hearings on the bill and hopefully keep it from advancing. Believe it or not, while this is standard practice in Congress and most state legislatures, we’re not aware of any New York legislative committee doing this in recent memory! There’s no reason legislators in both chambers can’t start doing it more often this year.
While we tend to focus on the financial wrongs of the state, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that our voice is diluted by leadership at the Capitol. And with items like the budget, it is time for voters to re-teach legislators what they should have learned from a television cartoon. In the coming months, we need to pressure both chambers to implement rules that will allow them to operate as a true representative democracy in next year’s session. And if they don’t? Well than we need to ask ourselves why they should be elected to represent us.