Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Reform on the Way?

According to the Politicker, this might be the best year to achieve legislative reform in the state senate: "A coalition of good-government advocates are making the case for "yes," and today released an update to a 2004 report by N.Y.U.'s Brennan Center which details New York's legislative dysfunction. The new report lists concrete recommendations like evening out funding given to legislators--regardless of party--and empowering the chairs of legislative committees to hire their own staff and move bills to the floor. There is also a new recommendation for more substantive notes on the fiscal impacts of bills."

These are all meritorious ideas, and have been endorsed by putative majority leader Malcolm Smith; lost in the hubbub, of course, is the fact that many of these reforms were advanced by the three amigos at the time when their original deal was proffered. It remains to be seen whether the reforms remain as an essential component of a new Democratic majority-should that occur in the next couple of days.

Much of this was taken up in an interesting Op-ed by Jeremy Creelan in last week's NY Daily News. Creelan's idea of reform may be a bit far out for most legislators; and it appears that he wants to eschew partisan politics from the legislature-something that would, in our view, cause more harm than it would create better governance:

"Imagine if, instead of focusing on ensuring that Democrats will control the majority leader position so they can run the Senate like the dysfunctional autocracy it has been for so long, Gov. Paterson and Senate Democrats now chose a different path. Namely, give the entire Senate a choice of leaders - without regard to political party - and dramatically reduce the powers of the majority leader to control which bills are drafted and voted on by the full Senate. Allow the full Senate to select committee chairmen based on their experience and expertise, rather than their party and their relations with the majority leader. Allow minority party members (in this case Republicans), as well as the whole Senate, to force bills out of committee and onto the floor for a vote."

Envisioning a meritocratic utopia is fine for the arm chair theorists; but would devolve quickly into a rudderless morass, as political interests soon came to undermine the road to good intentions. That being said, empowering the chairs of committees makes a great deal of sense; and actually having public hearings is long overdue as well.

In this morning's NY Times, the paper editorializes in favor of reform: "As the Brennan analysts noted this year, legislative leaders, especially Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, have had “a stranglehold on the flow of legislation at all stages of the legislative process.” Most members have little say. Committees are run like shadow puppet theaters. Details about legislation are hard for the public to get, unless they subscribe to a bill-drafting service for $2,250 a year."

But, according to the Times, Malcolm Smith and the Senate Dems can change this situation: "Two years ago in the last vote on legislative rule changes, Mr. Smith sponsored comprehensive reform similar to the Brennan Center’s excellent ideas. The changes, which were rejected by the Republicans in the majority, would have strengthened committees, requiring lawmakers to be physically present to vote. Recently senators could fax in their yeas or nays to the committee chairman. The proposal would have required tons of transparency and made it easier for bills to come to the floor for debate instead of the usual automatic passage."

The NY Post's Fred Dicker is typically more colorful-but hits on the same theme: "ALBANY POLS STILL SUCK." Citing the Brennan Center report: "NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice said virtually nothing had changed since it blasted the Legislature's notorious secrecy, lack of democracy, and strong-arm leadership - despite politicians' repeated promises that things would get better."

Our advice? Take it a few small steps at a time; because, as we've seen already in Washington, stentorian cries for global change tend to flounder on the more tawdry realities of mundane political considerations. Incrementalism should be the watchword of Albany change, especially since the close nature of the partisan split will force a great deal more bipartisan cooperation; but, if done right, a measure of real good can be achieved in the upcoming session.