Reform, not revenge

Sunday, March 9, 2008
Albany will only be fixed if the Senate breaks with its past
    When former Assemblyman Darrel J. Aubertine won election late last month to a New York State Senate seat along the St. Lawrence Seaway, senate Democrats began looking forward to the day, perhaps as soon as this coming November, when they might finally take control of the legislature’s upper chamber.
    If and when that happens, the new Democratic majority will face a choice: whether to use their opportunity to reform a dysfunctional legislative process, or whether to take seek revenge by treating a Republican minority as they have been treated for all but one of the past 39 years.
    Should a senate Democratic majority choose revenge, the rest of us who live outside the calcified bubble that is Albany, whether upstaters or downstaters, Democrats or Republicans, will once again be the losers.
    The dirty little secret within each house of New York’s legislature is that, as matters currently stand, legislators in the majority party have only one real function: to choose their leaders. Once that is done, legislators become puppets who do their leader’s bidding when he pulls their strings. Either legislators vote as they are told or they find themselves quickly cast into Albany’s version of Limbo, deprived not only of choice committee assignments but also funds for district office space, aides and computers, all of which are vital to serving the constituents who elected them.
    There are good reasons for legislative leaders to exercise some modicum of control over their members. The major one is to prevent their majority from breaking up into a gaggle of squabbling, competing factions. When that happens, it becomes difficult, even impossible, to pass necessary legislation, especially budgets.
    But as matters now stand, the leaders’ absolute control of legislative agendas and committee assignments strangles nearly any possibility of responsible and accountable governance in Albany. No item gets onto the agenda unless the leader approves. Committees rarely meet to formulate, discuss and amend proposed bills unless the leaders approve. And committee chairmen, rather than being elected by committee members, owe their appointments to the leader, which ensures that the leader’s control over the agenda remains ironclad.
    The result is little or no ongoing oversight of state agencies that annually consume most of the state’s budget, which is projected to be approximately $124 billion for fiscal year 2008-2009. There is no meaningful legislative deliberation over how large or small, how responsible or eccentrically indulgent spending will be. Majority leaders in each chamber negotiate the budget with the governor, and then give legislators less than 24 hours to sort through a bill the size of a half dozen Manhattan telephone directories — on the condition that, no matter what they find or what they may object to in the proposal, they will vote as instructed by their leader.
    Such thorough control has for decades stifled Albany’s ability to respond quickly and innovatively to challenging conditions in a state with enormous human and economic potential, but which has been steadily hemorrhaging people and jobs while legislative czars remain obsessed with retaining their power.
    The prospect that Democratic control of the state Senate will break the political stalemate that plagues Albany will only come true if the legislators who make up that new majority forego the perverse pleasure of sticking it to the new minority and instead take control of the agenda with their own hands by electing their own committee chairmen and using their committees to propose and adopt measures reflecting their constituent’s needs and responding to major issues facing the state.
    Anything less will simply trade an old czar for a new one, and by now most New Yorkers recognize that czardom is czardom, no matter who wields the knout.
    Adam Simms is senior research fellow of Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform.