For real reform, New York should change how it elects representatives

JUNE 25, 2009
    In the few short months since they gained power after 40-some years in the political wilderness, the hapless New York State Senate Democrats showed why they’d been relegated to the sidelines for the vast majority of the 20th century.
    But even worse than their basic political incompetence, the Democrats failed to live up to their pre-election talk. They came into office promising a host of institutional reforms: empowering rank-and-file senators, using conference committees instead of the “three men in a room” to hash out policy decisions, not hogging all the Senate money. Yet they effectively mimicked their long-time Republican tormentors by punishing minority lawmakers with the same treatment that Democrats had long detested.
    After regaining power, the Republicans have tried to wear the reformers’ garb. But what they’ve called meaningful change is a joke. They have focused on small, publicity-seeking internal tweaks that will provide no real benefit for New Yorkers or for better governance.
    A power-sharing agreement, potentially with some reforms, now seems to be emerging. But instead of eliminating frequently corrupt and wasteful member items, senators say they will share them. Rather than making serious cuts into the bloated Senate workforce, as befits an economic crisis, they want to make sure that everybody gets close-to-equal overstaffing.
    There is a need here for some real changes, and the Democrats are the party to push for it. Not just the obvious, like getting rid of member items and slicing staffs. They should also champion systemic changes - ones that, with growing Democratic voter enrollment in the state, will have the added benefit to the party of significantly improving its odds of gaining long-term control of the Senate. They should push to revamp the Senate’s campaign finance laws and to eliminate the gerrymander.
    New York has some of the loosest campaign finance rules in the country, from allowing unlimited soft money donations to the parties for “housekeeping” to sky-high contribution limits for candidates. But what stands out is a special carve-out for senators. The individual contribution limit for each donor to a senator is significantly higher than to a member of the Assembly, not to mention for a presidential contender. Each senator can receive donations of up to $6,000 for a primary and $9,500 for a general election. Simply cutting this figure down would be a welcome improvement.
    In a similar vein, control of the legislative district boundaries is one of the most powerful weapons in an incumbent’s arsenal. After the census is taken each decade, state legislatures redraw district lines. The law requires that each district contain an equal population. But even with this limitation, political leaders are able to slice the maps to maximize political benefit.
    The result is that regardless of demographic changes, the party in power makes sure its incumbents are protected. In New York, the Republicans successfully used redistricting to protect their Senate majority against the large statewide Democratic enrollment edge.
    Of course, by handing this task over to a nonpartisan redistricting commission, senators would be taking a risk with their own seats. Drawing the district lines allows them to remove potential primary and general election threats.
    And redistricting reform has an additional hurdle - there would be ferocious complaints from the Assembly, where the Democrats hold a huge advantage and see no profit in giving up a powerful weapon. But by pushing hard for a nonpartisan process, Senate Democrats would send a signal that they are serious about reform.
    In their years out of power, the Senate Democrats talked a good game. But from Jan. 7 through June 8, they operated in business-as-usual mode. Now, with the legislative arena so tenuous, they should find religion and back up their old talk with action. Campaign finance and redistricting reform are two obvious places to start.
    Joshua Spivak, a lawyer and public relations executive, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.