Albany’s Broken; Let’s Fix It
Earlier this year, a survey by research company Fast Forward found that Albany tied with another city as the least stressful city in the country. And why not, since Albany’s the place where elected officials have failed to pass a budget on time for the last 20 years in a row. Every year the deadline—April Fool’s Day—arrives, and instead of keeping the state’s 62 senators in town to hammer out details and pass the budget, the Senate Majority Leader calls recess and sends everyone home. Further, important issues die as one-house bills never reach the governor’s desk, and virtually all legislation is orchestrated by one or all members of the infamous “Three Men in a Room.”
This way of doing things affects the average citizen in ways many people don’t realize. College students stay in doubt about their financial aid. Taxpayers don’t know if credits promised to them by the city will be approved. Organizations relying on the state for much of their funding—including the entire New York City school system—can’t plan their own budgets.
Some proposed changes in the way business could get done in Albany follow:
• Stop passing budget extenders —I voted no on every budget extender bill introduced since I joined the Senate. The message I’m trying to send is “Let’s make the Senate work a little; let’s stay here until we get the job done.”
• End empty seat voting —The Senate currently allows members to check in as “present and voting” in the Senate chamber in the morning, and then leave for the day. The senator, free to leave town and do whatever he/she finds more important, is recorded as voting “yes” on every bill that’s introduced. This system makes it impossible to debate on a bill and is unfair to legislators and constituents alike.
• End proxy voting —Senators don’t even have to sit and vote in their own committees; they can proxy their vote to another member.
• Have more debate and real witnesses and experts to testify about bills before they’re voted on –Once we get wayward senators back in the chamber, let’s bring in more witnesses and experts to testify on the merits and demerits of bills. Right now, there is hardly any testimony other than from lawmakers in the Democratic Conference.
• Have more conference committees to resolve differences between different versions of the same bills —New York has one of the few bicameral state legislatures (having two legislative chambers) in the country. With each one headed by a different party, we need more conference committees to resolve differences between similar bills so they may actually reach the governor’s desk.
• Make it easier to bring legislation out of committee and before the entire body for voting —Bills introduced by members of the Democratic Conference almost never reach the floor for a vote. Even bills that are voted out of committee are often withheld from a full vote by the Republican majority. The system makes it extremely difficult for Democratic senators to truly represent their constituents, and it needs to change if Albany is to be relevant for the average New Yorker.
• Restrict the governor’s use of “messages of necessity” —A message of necessity is an order from the governor that limits the amount of time legislators can look at a bill before voting for it. Often when this technique is employed, legislators only have enough time to look at a brief summary, and not the entire text, of a bill before having to vote on it.
I’m hoping that by the time you read this, the budget will have passed and my colleagues and I will be thinking about the next round of negotiations. This time around, though, our calls for change in the Senate will have a bit longer history and a bit more momentum. With the public’s interest and support, I hope to bring these calls to the forefront of the agenda in the Capitol.