Rating the New York State Legislature - 2005

The impact of the 2004 Brennan Report identifying the NYS Legislature as dysfunctional and one of the nation’s worst was immediate and far-reaching.  The Legislature passed the first on-time budget in 21 years.  The “empty-seat voting” – where any legislator who doesn’t vote “no” is recorded as voting “yes” – was eliminated. The Legislature required lobbyists seeking state contracts and executive orders to disclose their fees and clients; it no longer permitted state employees to evade ethics fines by “retiring” and passed legislation holding public authorities more accountable.
Spurred on by a Court of Appeals decision sharply limiting its power to alter the Governor’s budget proposals, the Legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the November 2005 ballot redefining its budgetary powers.  The amendment failed!
The final ($106 billion) budget reduced Medicaid allocations by about half a billion dollars, calling for a cap on local Medicaid costs; tweaked the Rockefeller Drug Laws and created twelve new tax-free Empire Zones.
The Legislature rejected the project to build a new football stadium for the Giants on the West Side of Manhattan and refused to sanction casino gambling in the Catskills.
And, the Legislature failed to enact a remedy in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE vs. State of New York) suit and to allocate the funds which a panel of experts indicated were required to satisfy the District Court’s earlier decision. Legislators cited Governor Pataki’s appeal as justification for their inaction. And, the Governor vetoed the Emergency Contraception bill at the eleventh hour!

However, what happens or fails to happen is the result of decisions made by the “three men in a room” - Sheldon Silver, Democratic Assembly Speaker, Joseph Bruno, Republican Senate Majority Leader and Governor Pataki.  Democrats have controlled the State Assembly and Republicans the Senate for thirty years. Silver, Bruno and Pataki wield power because the members of their respective parties reelect them every year!

Calling themselves “reformers,” these legislative “leaders” and members of the Legislature participated in a series of meetings as part of a newly redesigned transparent and accountable budget process which produced few results. Their short-lived efforts at reform died quickly when the series of public meetings ended as each House went its separate way, holding hearings, creating and passing its own budget.

The session ended without any meaningful reform – around issues and/or the process.  There was no significant campaign finance reform legislation and no consideration of how to insure fair redistricting in the future.  Nor was there agreement about the implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) – particularly the selection of voting machines which would guarantee that every vote would be recorded and tallied accurately. And, the CFE remedy remains illusive.
Simultaneously, there was no willingness to make the committee process viable, to share control over the calendar and the flow of legislation.  Despite external appearances, the underlying issues requiring reform still remain. Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Bruno still rule!

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