Rating the New York State Legislature - 2004

The performance of the New York State Legislature, in 2004 was truly dysfunctional as the Brennan Center for Justice aptly documented in its report, The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform.

The budget, due April 1, was 133 days late, continuing a tradition of two decades. The three power brokers – Democratic Speaker, Sheldon Silver, Senate Republican Majority Leader, Joseph Bruno, and Governor, George Pataki, continued their budget “dance.” Other business can be finalized and executed only after passage of the budget. Recognizing that no legislation is passed without the agreement of the “three men in a room,” some legislative analysts identified a number of “successes.” Others disagreed!

The Legislature raised the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.10 an hour but the Governor vetoed the bill! The Senate delayed its vote to override. Confronting twenty years of late budgets, a bill to “reform” the process passed both houses and was signed by the Governor.  However, the voters rejected the Legislature’s budget reform proposal, affirming that despite radical changes to the budget process, the plan would give legislators an incentive not to pass a new budget at all! 

The State agreed to assume the costs of financing the Family Health Plus plan, thereby lifting the responsibility from local governments. Simultaneously, it refused to overhaul the essentials of the Medicaid program, the government’s health insurance for the poor and the largest item in the State (and City) budget. The Legislature also passed the Patriot Plan II, increasing benefits for NY National Guard members, expanded DNA collection for law enforcement purposes, and created the Albany Convention Center Authority. (An article about the need to reform Authorities appears elsewhere in this Newsletter.)

Yet, this $101+ billion budget is best remembered for what it failed to do!  Its biggest failure was to allocate funds for operating and capital expenditures for public education in New York City, the core of the decision in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) vs. State of New York suit, decided in District Court by Judge Leland deGrasse in 2001. The suit ordered the Legislature and the Governor to find a remedy which would rectify the many years public school students received less funding than required to provide them with a “sound, basic education.” (Details of this suit appear elsewhere in this issue).
The Legislature also failed to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) designed to rectify the gross errors associated with the federal election of 2000 by providing new voting machines and facilitating the registration and voting process nationwide.  Other major issues left unaddressed include reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, overhaul of the judicial selection process, ethics laws governing who will control the $100 million lobbying business, campaign finance regulation, energy reform, and worker’s compensation. In all, the Legislature introduced 17,000+ bills, passed about half, forwarding many to the governor for signature or veto.  All of this occurred against the backdrop of a system where districting/gerrymandering assures legislators of their jobs, and partisan politics reinforces the paralysis of government. 

There were initial efforts at basic reform. The “fast” roll call where members not present and voting are assumed to vote “yes” came under heavy attack. Individual members challenged the party leader on specific issues in party conferences.
The new Senate minority leader began to take small steps to enable Democrats to be more effective.

There was reason to hope for greater change in 2005!

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Working Families Win Reports Meetings Newsletters Speaking Out Endorsements Legislative RatingsTestimony