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The Nation

N.Y. Legislature Seen as Rife With Problems

A study labels the state's system the nation's most dysfunctional -- worse than California's.

July 25, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The California Legislature -- the domain of "girlie men," according to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- doesn't come close to matching the assessment of its East Coast counterpart in a new study. The legislative process in New York state has been labeled the most dysfunctional in the nation.

In a scathing report, a research and advocacy group said that fewer than 1% of the key bills passed by lawmakers from 1997 through 2001 were the subject of public hearings and that fewer than one in 20 were debated on the floors of the state Senate or Assembly.

Making the process even more opaque, the report said, New York has the only state legislature that routinely allows empty-seat voting, in which the votes of absent representatives are automatically counted as favoring a bill's passage.

Adding to the limitations on the public's ability to participate, the group said, Democrats and Republicans routinely discussed bills behind closed doors without any transcript or public record.

"New York State's legislative process is broken," the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school said in a report issued last week. "Neither the U.S. Congress nor any other state legislature so systematically limits the roles played by rank-and-file legislators and members of the public in the legislative process."

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno challenged the conclusion.

Charles Carrier, a spokesman for Silver, said the speaker constantly communicated with members and committee heads. "Everybody is involved," Carrier said. "His leadership is based on dialogue."

In comments to reporters in Albany, the state capital, Bruno called the report "pure nonsense" and a document written by people who are "just reading books and studying and doing research."

The majority leader said the Legislature exemplified representative government and compared it to a large corporation in which the chief executive must possess communication and leadership skills.

"People elect representatives, representatives elect their leader, their leader represents their interests," he said.

The Brennan Center, named after late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., portrayed the Legislature as dominated by Bruno, a Republican from upstate New York, and Silver, a Democrat who represents a district in Manhattan.

Both have the power to hire and fire committee staff, leverage magnified by the number of standing committees. The report noted that the Senate had 32 committees, more than any other state Senate except Mississippi, with 35. The Assembly has 37 standing committees, which ranks it fifth among legislatures.

"New York's centralized control over staff discourages committee chairpersons from developing and promoting legislation without leadership support," the report said, calling the system "moribund."

Because the "Speaker and Majority Leader can control each member's funding for staff and office operations, members are discouraged from challenging their leader's approach to specific legislation or to procedural rules," the report added.

The report said New York made it harder than any other state did to move bills from committee to full consideration, because the majority leader and speaker controlled the calendar.

A special Senate procedure called "starring" gives Bruno additional power.

The majority leader can suspend action on a bill by asking that a star be placed alongside its listing. No action can take place until the day after the star is removed -- and only Bruno can remove it.

"New York State's Senate is the only legislative chamber in the country that grants such unilateral authority over legislation to its leader," the report said.

The Brennan Center called for changes, including the right of committees to fund and hire their own staffs, for all bills to be voted on by both chambers within 60 days, and for legislators to be present for their votes to count.

"This problem has been in place for at least 50 years and a lot longer," said Jeremy M. Creelan, the center's associate counsel and the principal author of the analysis. "This report is not an effort to demonize the current leaders."

Both the New York and California legislatures are late in adopting new state budgets. California's was due in June; New York's was due in April.

Last week, Schwarzenegger called opponents of his $103-billion budget proposal "girlie men" and urged voters to "terminate" them at the polls in November if they didn't approve it.

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